“But you be whatever your heart tells you to. And if he scares you too much. Keep a hand over your heart and just say, “AAL IZZ WELL!”
This might be one of the most relatable lines from the much appreciated Amir Khan Starrer 2009 blockbuster ‘3 idiots’. The film’s most famous character played by Amir himself, Phunsukh Wangdu, had caused major box office mayhem. But most of us are unaware of the real-life inspiration for the reel-life character, Phunsukh Wangdu.
Meet Sonam Wangchuk, an engineer in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, who had been the inspiration behind Amir Khan’s reel-life character. As a viewer you must have been left awe-struck by the genius of the character, but in real life his genius is way more surreal.
He was born and brought up in a tiny village of five households about 70 kms from Leh. As a child his focus was into a holistic & harmonious way of learning, right in the lap of Mother Nature. “I played in the fields, sowing seeds, working with animals, jumping in the river, climbing trees,” he says. He was unschooled till the age of 9, and learnt the basics of reading and writing from his mother as there weren’t any schools in the village at that time. “My early skills were so developed by these experiences that when I finally joined school at 9, I got promoted twice in a year!”-He added.
Later on in life while pursuing his mechanical engineering, he started teaching children for an income. It was at this time; Sonam Wangchuk realized how unacceptable the state of education was in Ladakh. Since then the 50-year-old engineer-turned-educationist has been trying to change the education landscape of Ladakh keeping a focus on one failed student at a time. “But then we wanted to take care of the ones who still failed, give them a new chance, re-launch them.” He runs a school in Phey, for about 60 students a year who fail the school board exams. His way of teaching is also very holistic, by creating a living-learning experience. “They learn by doing – they farm, keep animals, make food products and engage in solving real life problems that they face in these harsh climatic conditions.”
There is an acute water scarcity during the early crop-growing period in the Ladakh, situated at 3500 metres altitude from the sea level and located between Kunlun and Great Himalayan mountain ranges. It was while contributing to solve this real life problem of acute water shortage in the arid and dry regions of western Himalayas, that Wangchuk came up with the simple but path breaking idea of ‘Ice Stupas’.
Sonam Wangchuk became the only 2nd Indian to bag the prestigious Rolex Awards for Enterprise on November 15, 2016 and to gain a global recognition. This initiative by Rolex supports individuals with innovative ideas to make the world a better place.
He had developed a simple yet effective system in an attempt to solve the problem of lack of water for agriculture in the cold desert. He built vertical ice-towers by freezing millions of liters of water, which would efficiently address the problem of premature melting due to the direct sunlight. When the water is sprayed in the -20° temperatures of the Ladakhi winter, it cools and freezes as it falls slowly adopting a natural conical shape. “A pipe brings water from the upstream to the downstream. When you do that, the built-up of pressure in the pipe is used to run a fountain that sprays water in the air,” he explains.
Thanks to its cone-shape, snow melts gradually and lasts until May, helping farmers in overcoming water shortages. “The idea is to freeze the water in the winter and use it in late spring. The conical tower shape ensures that the surface exposed to the sun is minimal, so premature melting is avoided,” he said. He has received a prize money of 100,000 Swiss francs (Rs 67 lakh) and one of the world’s most expensive watches engraved with his name. He wishes to build a university with the amount that would in turn attract funds, by which he can build more such ice-stupas as a solution to the problems of the people of the mountains. In a star-studded night at the Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre, the biggest supernova was the jovial and even more humble man from India with a big dream, Sonam Wangchuk.