Sonam Wangchuk was born in Uley Tokpo, near Alchi in 1966. He did his early education in different government schools mainly Kendriya Vidyalayas. After finishing his schooling, he went to National Institute of Engineering, Srinagar to study Mechanical Engineering. During his college years, he learned about the hardships faced by the Ladakhi students in the government schools, for example in those days 95% of the students used to fail in their matric exams every year. Therefore, he decided to devote his life to this field and hence, after he finished his studies in 1988, together with some other like-minded youths they started SECMOL - the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh. After initially starting with coaching classes to help matric students, they soon realized that for a lasting solution they needed to bring reforms the education system in the village primary schools. So they launched an education reform movement in collaboration with the government.
Q. Can you tell us about Operation New Hope and how far you were able to achieve your objectives?
From 1991 onwards we started working to improve the village government schools, first with small experiments in a few schools and then expanding it to the whole district at which point the movement was named Operation New Hope so that all governmental and non-governmental players can participate and feel ownership of it. During this period we had a wonderful collaboration first with the state government and then with the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council after its formation in 1995. Teachers were trained at massive scales, textbooks were re-written and adapted to Ladakhi context, the medium of instruction was switched from Urdu to English (like in all private schools) and village people were organized and trained to take ownership of their schools by forming Village Education Committees (VEC). Soon the school results jumped from 5% to 55% in just seven years. People used to bring their children out of private schools and enroll them in the village schools as they were so good. Soon Ladakhi government schools became a model for the whole country, President APJ Abdul Kalam mentioned this Ladakhi initiative as an example for the nation in his Independence Day speech in 2006. People from Kashmir, Jammu and Himachal Pradesh and even from as far as Nepal came to see and learn from the Ladakhi experience.
Q. But there were big problems later. How did that happen?
Despite such glorious outcomes, not everyone was pleased with this progress. Some teachers felt that the new changes made them work harder, certain bureaucrats saw the collaboration with NGOs as interference in government functioning and few politicians even felt threatened by the rising popularity of the movement and those leading it. And above all, in the second five-year phase of ONH, SECMOL was also playing a whistleblower and watchdog role with its media organs and had started exposing corrupt practices in the Education Department. This was because our strategy was that in the first five years we should overlook all individual and institutional shortcomings and only focus on giving everyone a chance to bring the best in them. Then in the second five-year phase, our strategy was – having given the chance to reform, those who did not have to be exposed publicly. So those whose acts were exposed in media started an anti-SECMOL campaign, maligning SECMOL in every possible way. Finally, by 2006 the pressure was all built up and needed just a spark to ignite and this spark came in the form of a freshly posted Deputy Commissioner who unknowingly got carried away into the agenda of this group. Then over a small incident, a bureaucratic war was started against the NGOs, particularly SECMOL. This went to the extent of leveling allegations like ‘Sonam Wangchuk had physically threatened/attacked government functionaries’, that I had captured state land and that I was even an anti-national element with Chinese connections.
Luckily thousands of supporters around the world came to our help in an internet-based campaign, even President Abdul Kalam intervened and finally, the DC was removed and most of the charges against me were dropped. However, at that point, having had this bitter experience, I said that since our partnership was seen as an unwanted interference SECMOL shall withdraw from the collaboration and resume only if and when the local government of LAHDC specifically invites us by formally passing a resolution re-adopting a programme like ONH. The ball still remains in their court.
Q. What is the present status of education in Ladakh?
Well by now it is a painful common knowledge that government schools are closing one after another, people have lost faith in them and are going to any lengths to send their children to private schools in Leh. I find this very sad. It’s not just government schools closing; I see this as whole villages closing down. To an ordinary person sending a child to a private school in Leh may not seem like the end of the world, but I think the repercussions would be much bigger. Firstly it destroys the self-reliance of the villages. In the past, if a village had a good government school and a good medical centre people could almost lead a cashless life free from the rat race of the cities. But now they have to earn the cash to pay the private schools and for that many ends up migrating to Leh. If not fully migrate, one of the parents, usually the mother, ends up camping in a one-room dera in Leh or nearby. Now, on one hand, the kids lose their childhood, get uprooted from their village and usually never return, on the other hand, with the kids and the mother gone the old grandparents end up having to work on the farms till their dying day. And with their death, the village dies.
Very soon you will see that along with the death of the village schools, pashmina from Changthang will die, apricots from Sham will die and farming in Nubra will die. Well, Leh will grow into a big overcrowded city with all kinds of environmental and employment problems and a growing crime rate. It will be too late to act.
Q. What can be done to improve it?
Leaders, bureaucrats, teachers, and everyone need to understand the true gravity of the problem and help where they can or at least not hinder others who can. Government schools have great potential, they have the best teachers and the most resources. Did you know that in Ladakh the expenditure per child in these schools is at least 5,000 rupees per month, which is higher than the fees we pay in the best private schools? They can definitely perform if they get the attention of the society.
Did you know that government schools in Ladakh were much better in the nineteen fifties and sixties? Back then there were no private schools and the richest and the most powerful families sent their children to the same government school where the poorest farmer’s children also went. This generated interest among these influential parents and hence accountability among the officers and teachers. As a result, everyone excelled. Did you know that back in the fifties the pass percentage in government schools was above 80%? Did you know that most of the renowned Ladakhis were all products of government schools? Be it engineers like Sonam Norbu who built the Leh airport and Srinagar–Leh road or Sonam Dawa. Writers like Tashi Rabgias, Abdul Gani Sheikh or Kacho Sikandar Khan. Administrators like Chhewang Phuntsog (Chief Secretary) or politicians like P Namgyal (Union Minster). World class doctors like the two Dr. Norbus and Dr. Lhadol or teachers like Eliezer Joldan who was instrumental in shaping all the above names. The list is really long, and today with all the big private schools we are far from matching this trail of excellence.
I am not saying that private schools are bad; in fact, I think Ladakh is fortunate to have mostly selfless charitable private schools owned by societies who actually make a loss running these schools. What concerns me is exactly this. That we go from pillar to post to open private schools with the best of intentions, and in order to run them we beg from foreign sponsors and wealthy individuals, sell cakes, organize lottery draws and what not. But on the other hand we let die the schools with the richest of all ‘sponsors’, that spends 5,000 rupees per child per month and that can produce such an unmatched galaxy of great luminaries. As to why this happens and why there is no collaboration between the private schools with such good intentions and the government schools with such good resources, will remain the biggest mystery of my life.
Q. We heard that you were recently appointed to the State Education Advisory Board. What do you think of this and what role could you play?
I have learned it also from the newspapers and I am waiting to get more information on what role they expect me to play. But I have always tried to do whatever little I could for children in the entire Himalayan region, so of course, I shall be happy to do the same in our own state and region.
Q. How could you contribute to educational development in Ladakh?
Well, I know that with wholehearted cooperation from all stakeholders and with a readiness to adopt out of the box measures we can achieve near 100% results (not just in exams but in true learning) within three to five years. However, as I have already said I do not want to force myself on anyone. Within Ladakh, since both Leh and Kargil are equally close to my heart, I would say whichever district is ready to take extraordinary measures for extraordinary outcomes and truly needs me, I shall be happy to offer my humble services.
Q. We heard you were working in Nepal for a few years. What have you been doing in these years?
I have always had two callings. Engineering (solar buildings) has been my first love but then education became my main work because of the louder call there. After the 2007 problems and our withdrawal from the ONH collaboration, I took up an assignment as an advisor in Nepal for three years. For this, I had to learn to speak, read and write Nepali in just six months. This assignment was also about education reform, but after that, I wanted to indulge my engineer half and therefore went for a very interesting two years of higher studies in Earth architecture in Grenoble, France. The course was in French and I had to learn the language in just two months. I was then moved by the Leh floods of 2010 and the possibility of a big earthquake in this region as predicted by many scientists world over. So for the past year or so I have been doing research for the same university aiming to revolutionize the way people build houses in Ladakh. Currently, I am helping a group of youth use this research and set up a company that will build houses from rammed earth that are flood-safe, earthquake resistant and can stay warm in winters without any heating fuel other than solar energy. You will hear more about this in the months to come.