PeopleStory

Sonam Wangchuk: The real ‘Phunsuk Wangdu’

Hello Friends! Today I’m going to talk about this man Mr. Sonam Wangchuk, the inspiration behind the character of Phunsuk Wangdu, played by Bollywood actor Aamir Khan in the film 3 idiots.

Sonam Wangchuk was born on September 1, 1966 in a tiny village of 5 housholds called Uley Tokpo, near Alchi, in the Trans Himalayan region of Ladakh, India. Because of this, he was not enrolled in school till the age of 8.5 years. His mother taught him all the basics in his own mother tongue. His uncle took him to the remote region of Nubra, where he was enrolled in school, where due to his maturity the teachers promoted him to his next class and when he returned to Leh after 6 months he was in grade 3along with 9 yrs old. He considers his early years spent with his mother and learning from her reading and writing along with freedom to explore nature and village life as the best education possible for himself. In those days, his father Sonam Wangyal, a politician who later became the minister in state government was stationed in Srinagar. At the age of 9, he was taken to Srinagar and enrolled in a school there. Since he looked different from other students and gets addressed in different language that he did not understand. Due to which his lack of responsiveness was mistaken for him being stupid. He recalls this period as his darkest part of life. Unable to bear the treatment, he escaped alone to Delhi in 1977, where he pleaded his case to the school principal at Vishesh Kendriya Vidyalaya. It was a free, residential, government school for children from the border areas of India. Here he received enough encouragement from teachers which let him come out of his shell. He studied well and in 1983, he got admission in the National Institute of technology, Srinagar and completed his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1987. Due to some differences with his father over the choice of engineering stream, he had to finance his own education. For this he ran a coaching center for 10th grade students during his vacation. The experience of seeing perfectly bright students struggling and failing in the examination made him interested in changing the education system “instead of adding another engineer to the crowd”.

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Mr. Wangchuk is an engineer, innovator and an education reformist. He is the founding director of SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) which was founded in 1988 by a group of students who had been the ‘victims’(as said by sonam) of an alien education system foisted on Ladakh. SECMOL works to rebuild the lost pride and self-confidence of the students of ladakh through its educational reforms program. He is also known for designing the SECMOL campus that runs completely on solar energy and uses no fossil fules for cooking, lighting or heating, even in Ladakhi winters when temperature falls to minus 25C degrees. Wangchuk was instrumental in the launch of Operation New Hope in 1994, a triangular collaboration of government, village communities and the civil society to bring changes in the government schools system. This movement led to raising 10th grade exam results in the region from 5% to 75%.

Since June 1933 till August 2005, he also founded and worked as the editor of Ladakh’s only magazine Ladags Melong, which is one of the greatest sources of regional news and environmental issues. In 2004, he was appointed to be an advisor for the education in the Hill Council Government. In 2002, along with other NGO heads, he founded Ladakh Voluntary Network (LVN), a network of Ladakhi NGOs, and served in its Executive committee as the secretary till 2005. In 2004, he was appointed to the drafting committee of the Ladakh Hill Council Government’s Vision document ‘Ladakh 2025’ and entrusted with the formulation of the policy on Education and Tourism. The document was formally launched by Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2005. In2005, he was appointed as a member in the National Governing Council for Elementary Education in the Ministry of Human Resource Development of India. From 2007-2010, Wangchuk worked as an Education Advisor for MS, a Danish NGO working to support the Nepalese Ministry of Education for Education Reforms. In 2009, he was invited by the prime minister of Bhutan to be in the international advisory group for introduction of Gross National Happiness in Education. In 2011, he did his Masters Specialization in Earthen Architecture from CRAterre, National School of Architecture, in Grenoble France. In late 2013, he invented and built a prototype of the Ice Stupa which is an artificial glacier that stores the wasting stream waters during the winters in the form of giant ice cones or stupas, and releases the water during late spring as they start melting, which is perfect time when the farmers need water. In 2013, he was appointed to the Jammu & Kashmir State Education Advisory Board. In 2014, he was appointed to expert panel for framing the J&K State Education Policy and Vision Document. Since 2015, Sonam has started working on establishing Himalayan Institute of Alternatives.

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Sonam has been helping to design and oversee the construction of several solar mud buildings in mountain regions so that energy saving principles is implemented on a large scale, thus reducing fuel burden. Sonam’s experience shows how buildings play a great role in education and how solar mud buildings are more sustainable at different levels. Even in -30C degree winters, his solar-powered school built with the rammed earth keeps the students warm.

In January 2014, Sonam started a project called Ice Stupa. His aim was to find a solution to the water crisis being faced by the farmers of Ladakh. By the end of February in 2014, they had successfully built a two- story prototype of ice stupa which could store roughly 150,000 liters of winter stream water.

In 2015, when Ladakh faces a crisis due to a land slide which blocked the Phugtal river in Zanskar and caused formation of 15km long lake which became a huge threat for the downstream population. He proposed to use siphon technique to drain the lake and water jet erosion to safely cut the edges instead of blasting. But his advice was ignored and blasting work was carried on. On May 7, 2015, the lake finally bust into flood which destroyed 12 bridges and many fields.

In 2016, Sonam started applying ice stupa technique for disaster mitigation at high altitude glacier lakes. He was invited by Sikkim government to apply siphon technique for dangerous lake of their region. In Sep 2016, he led a three weeks expedition on the Lhonak Glacier lake in North-West Sikkim, which had been declared dangerous for the last few years. This lake at 5,200m altitude located right next to the Tibet border is accessed only by a full day of jeep ride from Gangtok and then 4 days by trek over the high passes. His team camped in tents for 2 weeks at the lake installing the first phase of of siphoning system to drain the lake to a safer level until other measures were taken up.

In late 2016, the idea started gaining fame from the authorities in the Swiss Alps. Sonam was invited by the President of Pontresina, Switzerland to build ice stupas to add winter tourism attraction. In Oct 2016, Sonam and his team went to Swiss Alps and built ice stupas, the first ice stupas of Europe. After this prototype is built and tested, the Swiss want to expand the project to build more ice stupas, mainly to counter the phenomenon of fast- melting glaciers in the upper parts of Swiss mountains.

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