Education evangelist Sonam Wangchuk is the high-profile and much acclaimed Leh (Ladakh)-based co-founder of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL, estb. 1988), a non-profit which runs the SECMOL Alternative School (estb. 1994). This offbeat school offers children from poor households, school drop-outs, failed class X students and those looking for a gap year specially designed hands-on residential programmes in basic English, science (with emphasis on solar energy, health and environment studies), Ladakh culture, computer science and self-development techniques.
Newspeg. On November 27, Wangchuk who has won several global accolades — Rolex Award for Enterprise 2016; Indians for Collective Action (ICA) Honor Award 2017, San Francisco; UNESCO Chair Earthen Architecture CRATerre France, 2014; Ashoka Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship of Ashoka USA, 2002 — was in Bangalore to receive an award of the globally reputed Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment for his pioneering work in the field of environment sustainability.
History. Born in Uleytokpo, a remote village in Leh (altitude 11,500 ft), Wangchuk was homeschooled till age nine and later in the Vishesh Kendriya Vidyalaya, Delhi. In 1983, he was admitted into the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar. After graduating in 1987 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he became aware of the sub-standard education being dispensed to primary school children in his native Ladakh. “The textbooks were in Urdu till class VIII and English for classes IX and X. Moreover, teachers were untrained and unmotivated with minimal community participation. The result was an abysmal 5 percent class X pass percentage in the region,” he recalls.
Direct talk. “Therefore in 1988 together with some college peers, I promoted SECMOL. In collaboration with the state government, NGOs and village communities, we produced relevant textbooks in the regional Ladakhi language. This initiative was well received by local communities and school enrolments and retention improved dramatically. Currently, 300 schools in Ladakh district use our textbooks and the class X pass percentage in the state board exams has risen to 75 percent,” says Wangchuk.
“The SECMOL Alternative School was promoted in 1994 for dropouts and failed students to acquire skills education under our hand, head and heart curriculum. I believe the complete disregard of skills education in India’s K-12 education system is a great failure and accounts for the millions of unemployed youth across the country,” says Wangchuk, who self-designed the school’s eco-friendly and self-sufficient campus in Phey, 17 km from Leh.
Future plans. After a successful run in primary-secondary education, SECMOL is intent on promoting an alternative university named the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives for preserving the ecology of the country’s mountainous regions.
“I have donated the Rs.1 crore prize money awarded to me for the Rolex Award for Enterprise as seed money for establishing the Himalayan Institute. Moreover, the government of Ladakh Autonomous Hill Council has earmarked 200 acres for the project. Our mission is to produce a skilled generation, equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills in educationally neglected Ladakh,” says this rooted education evangelist.
Sruthy Susan Ullas ( Bangalore)