By introducing educational reforms in government-run schools, Sonam Wangchuk is encouraging communities to reinforce the cultural identity of minority ethnic groups that live along the northern border of India.
Since Ladakh's annexation to Jammu and Kashmir in 1947, the official language of Ladakh, like the rest of the state, has been Urdu. Hindi, India's national language, and English are taught. Languages of instruction in primary schools are Hindi and Urdu, neither of which the children speak in their daily lives. Children begin to learn English only five years before their school exams in English. As a result, the students have difficulty expressing themselves on exams and the failure rate is high. Since India's independence, the graduation rate in Ladakh has varied from zero to 5 percent.
Until recently, the quality of teaching was poor and teachers often ridiculed Ladakhi students for being different. Elementary school curricula were built on mainstream Indian motifs and contexts the children did not understand. Material was taught in Hindi, a language the children do not speak. Teachers were neither trained nor supervised, and this led to corruption of the system. Many teachers ceased conducting their classes altogether and chose to spend their time at a second job. Those who did teach required their students to attend high-fee supplementary sessions.
The cultural discrimination experienced in Ladakh has resulted in high failure rates that in turn have led to unemployment. The ensuing economic dissatisfaction has generated political tension and feelings of resentment toward the government. Because the people of the region do not identify with Indian culture, they have been especially vulnerable to political ploys. For instance, it is alleged that groups in neighboring Pakistan have used Ladakhis in Kargil for insurgencies against India.
Beginning with one school in the village of Saspol, Sonam started by engaging the villagers themselves in the school system. He realized early in his work that change at the policy level lay in people's support and participation. Mitigating the dangerous political situation he was working in, the people also acted as a protective shield against the wrath of the government.
Building on that foundation, Sonam then launched the Village Education Committees. The villages that want teacher training are asked to pay for it. Each villager contributes a little toward the total amount. These contributions ensures the villagers' enthusiasm in the process of change and secures their future roles as monitors of the schools. Sonam works with the committees and with new teachers to introduce curricula with local motifs and contexts, including new methods in teaching science and math.
Sonam takes care to avoid and neutralize conflict by maintaining a balance between the teachers and the people. Villagers treat teachers with great respect. Villagers are encouraged to organize welcome and farewell parties for them, and the teachers are aware that the villagers both contribute to their training and monitor the schools.
According to Sonam's strategy, the training of teachers is followed by focus on the inherent flaw in the education system, namely, the foreignness and poor quality of the curriculum. Through Sonam and his team's careful introduction of relevant topics and advocacy efforts, the government introduced English at the primary level in 1992, a move especially important because there is still no universally accepted version of written Ladakhi.
In 1996 on popular demand, the Hill Council adopted Sonam's participation model "Operation New Hope" as its official policy for the government schools of Ladakh. To strengthen the voice of the people, Sonam merged the Village Education Councils into Block Education Committees and these further into District Education Committees so that the new strengthened citizens' movement could continue to monitor schools.
A milestone in Sonam's work came with the building of a central government residential school at Durbuk village. Everyone in the community put in at least one day's labor to build the school. Because the buildings were insulated for winter use, they were able to implement a path-breaking change in the educational cycles. While children in Durbuk used to spend their school break in idleness during cold winters, they now are able to spend their break outdoors during the summer, often helping their parents at work farming, and study through the winter.
Sonam sees a need for good teachers with a strong sense of culture and tradition to bolster the education system in Ladakh. In the residential hostel in Phey, where senior students attending government schools live for a small fee, care is taken to ensure their full development. Sonam provides financial support for those who wish to become teachers. Their education in the hostel goes beyond the school curriculum. They participate in after-dinner debates and discussions and are introduced to Ladakhi culture and heritage, which has been diminishing through foreign influences. They also learn life-skills. Sonam organizes supplementary summer camps for other senior government school students. The resident students manage the hostel, decide on the menu, help with breakfast, and tend to the gardens.
An engineer by qualification, Sonam has incorporated the use of solar energy at the hostel in Phey and has also has set up a learning center for students to learn about solar energy. He has installed a solar cooker and solar pump to feed and wash the 200 students who live at the hostel. Solar power lights the hostel at night.
Simultaneously and persistently, Sonam has been working to update and simplify the Ladakhi script. He established the first Ladakhi newsletter and reaches out to Ladakhi-speaking people in India and Pakistan. Through this important tool, he has been building consensus among the Ladakhi diaspora on a universally accepted language.
Still, the problems in this geographic area are complex. The Muslim Ladakhis within India feel Urdu reinforces their religious identity, and so they are unwilling to learn Ladakhi. Conversely, the Muslim Ladakhis in Pakistan, an Islamic country, are keen to establish a stronger Ladakhi identity and want to work toward establishing a script. Sonam has been trying to reconcile the differences by, for example, getting the Koran translated in Ladakhi by a Muslim scholar-priest, and publishing it in his newsletter. Through his efforts, the Buddhist scholars who, years earlier, had been fiercely opposed to a change in the archaic script, are now open to the idea of a simpler language.
The Melong Publication house that Sonam established has published Ladakhi language books, as well as books on Ladakhi food and recipes. Recently, Sonam published the first illustrated series of traditional Ladakhi children's stories.
Sonam later opted to go to Ladakh where he opened a tuition center to help students take their first board exam (Class 10). The response was overwhelming. He tried new teaching methods in his class and encouraged peer learning. The experience led Sonam to realize that the core difficulty was with the language. Students who knew the answers well had difficulties expressing themselves in a language they began to learn so late in their school life. He returned the next year and decided to continue helping the students with free supplementary classes. But surprisingly, the response to free classes was not at all encouraging. He decided he would return to Ladakh to help the students.
In 1988, a year after graduating as an engineer, Sonam, with his brother and five peers, formed the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). Their first fundraising effort, a Ladakhi cultural show, proved to be a huge success. Until 1990 Sonam coached school students and offered vocational training courses to dropouts. Sonam had to get to the root of the problem, and the solution to that lay in localizing the system of elementary education. He did not think of building an alternate system because it would have resulted in a waste of resources. Besides, most of the children in Ladakh attended government-run schools.
In 1991 Sonam started his first intervention in the government school of Saspol with permission from the chief education officer of the region. The success of the model created popular demand for his training, and 33 villages came forward to adopt the model before the newly formed Hill Council adopted it as official policy.
In 1995, when Ladakh was placed under governor's rule for political disturbance, Sonam and his team went to plead their case with the special advisor to the governor. Impressed by their efforts, the advisor ordered the state government of Jammu and Kashmir to support the Melong Publications, and thus Sonam went on to publish his first set of books in Ladakhi.
Sonam lives on the Phey campus of SECMOL with his American wife Rebecca who originally went to Leh to work as a volunteer.