'Learning by doing is in our genes.'
'We are applying the wrong method by making our children sit in a classroom for eight hours, listening to someone talk.'
IMAGE: 'Teachers are like rubber stamps; when a stamp has a spelling mistake, every impression it creates will have that mistake,' says Sonam Wangchuk. Photograph: M I Khan
Sonam Wangchuk is a man of many parts.
The education reformist has been working for decades to change the Indian education system.
An environmentalist, he has been preparing to face climate change.
An innovator, he has created 'ice stupas' to help solve the water scarcity problem in his native Ladakh. This effort won him several awards including the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise and the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture.
An engineer with a difference, he is the real-life inspiration for Phunsukh Wangdu, the much-loved character Aamir Khan plays in 3 Idiots.
"We should respect all life and this learning needs to start as early as possible, in one's childhood," Sonam Wangchuk tells M I Khan in Kathmandu.
Some see joblessness as India's biggest problem. Others see it as India's biggest challenge.
The problem is not about joblessness.
There are so many jobs that don't have enough people.
The problem is not that of a hand without a job; it is about jobs without hands.
The problem is in the mindset of the people who are only willing to consider certain jobs as jobs and ignore the remaining options.
We have to cleanse our minds of this conditioning that we can do only certain kinds of jobs.
We have created a caste system as far as jobs are concerned and this is what is making us jobless.
If they did the job that made them happy, so many young people would be satisfied.
But no, our society and their parents would like children to become only engineers or doctor or IAS officers. This is not needed nor is it everyone's cup of tea.
When there are three seats and 100 applicants, 97 people will be disappointed.
If we rid ourselves of our conditioning and consider, for example, carpentry as a great skill; if we respect a gardener as much as we respect an engineer; if we respect a farmer more than an administrator because he is the source of the food we eat, then so many more people would become farmers.
People would then not be ashamed to be a progressive and highly educated farmer or a very skilled carpenter.
Those who really want to become engineers or doctors or administrators will do so because that is what they want to do and not because they are pressurised by their parents or by society.
It is wrong to say that if you belong to a certain profession, you are successful and if you can't do it, then you are unsuccessful.
The problem is not with the jobs; the problem is with our mindset.
We need to change the mindset of our people.
IMAGE: 'We have to cleanse our minds of this conditioning that we can do only certain kinds of jobs,' says Sonam Wangchuck.
Students at Wangchuk's The Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh school learn animal husbandry. Photograph: Kind courtesy SECMOL
Why doesn't such an approach figure in government policies?
I don't know.
There is nothing wrong in creating certain kinds of jobs. But you also need to have a social aspect to your campaign whereby you change the mentality of the people.
If you succeed in doing this, you have a better chance of creating more jobs.
At the same time, you need to create respect for such jobs. Otherwise, people will only want more jobs created in the same old conventional, ghissa pita (run of the mill) options.
We need azaadi (freedom) from the colonial mindset where administrative jobs matter the most.
Today, we attach great importance to working as an IAS officer because we were in a system for 200 years (under British rule) when civil servants were incredibly powerful.
But if you go to Germany today, their youth won't tell you that they want to join the administrative service.
In fact, except for our sub-continent, no youth across the world will tell you that they want to join the administrative service. That is not a high priority as far as their careers are concerned.
They want to become engineers, architects, carpenters and plumbers.
Carpenters get as much respect as architects in any other country.
My eyes were opened 25 years ago when I visited the UK for the first time for a conference. The convenor of the conference was a renowned professor.
We became close friends and he invited me home. He said he would introduce me to his son.
I thought his son would be a doctor or an engineer.
The professor took me to a nearby building where some people were working in a dusty workshop. His son worked as a carpenter there, not out of compulsion but out of choice.
Later, he may become the manager of a company. He can become anything as long as he has capacity for it.
We keep talking about dignity of labour in India, but it's only lip service.
IMAGE: Aamir Khan's character in 3 Idiots was inspired by Sonam Wangchuk.
Is this mindset related to India's caste system?
We have to de-colonise our minds if we want a new India.
We should take this bull by the horns and talk about it. We should not be sceptical about it.
We should not try to find the solution to the jobs problem by creating this job or that job.
By considering only white collar jobs as jobs worth having, we are punishing ourselves. We are suffering for our own sinful thinking.
It is said that, due to large scale joblessness in India, unemployed youth are turning towards politics as an easy way to earn money and enjoy power.
Is the fact that youth are joining politics on such a large scale good or bad for the country?
There is nothing wrong in the youth joining politics, but they should do it for the right reason.
They should join politics to serve the country and the people and not for power.
I see politics as an applied arm of democracy.
If democracy is important, if democracy is the reason why so many people have sacrificed their lives, then politics should be important too. It should not be left to those who could not do anything else in life.
And this is our big problem.
The present scenario is such that our most intelligent students become doctors and engineers. Or they opt for the IAS.
Those who cannot do anything become politicians and are now on top of all of them.
We should respect politics instead of considering it as low or bad.
The brightest should devote themselves to democracy.
Do you mean graduates from the IITs, IIMs, top medical colleges and other top institutes should join politics?
They should join politics and maintain its stature as a respectful and powerful way of serving the people.
When politics is manipulated by people who don't have their heart in the right place, it gets a bad image. This needs to be undone.
IMAGE: 'If they did the job that made them happy, so many young people would be satisfied,' says Sonam Wangchuk. Photograph: Kind courtesy SECMOL
Our education system is always in the news for the wrong reasons. How can we rectify this?
Why is innovation missing in our education system?
We only give lip service to education.
If our focus was really on education, there would certainly be more action.
Teachers would be celebrated and they would be given more rights and more remuneration.
What is happening today is the opposite of this.
They are paid one-tenth of what they deserve.
As a result, teaching as a profession becomes a refuge for those who could not do anything else.
Teachers are like rubber stamps; when a stamp has a spelling mistake, every impression it creates will have that mistake.
In order to attract the best brains towards the teaching profession, you need to make it an attractive option.
Teachers must get the respect and the facilities that are due to them to make it a socially coveted job so that people opt for it instead of becoming IAS officers or engineers.
If we had celebrating teaching, the next generation would have been much better.
Now, only the poorest talent opt for education and politics, the two fields that are most important for nation building.
Why has China raced ahead of India as a knowledge centre?
That is a debatable issue.
You have to consider whether freedom and the kind of democracy we have is more important than a tightly controlled system.
The option, I think, lies somewhere in between.
It should not be a free-for-all like India or as controlled as it is in China.
IMAGE: SECMOL students enjoy a game of ice hockey. Wangchuk wants to build a mountain university in Ladakh where youth from different Himalayan countries will come together to research the issues faced by mountain people in education, culture and environment.
According to the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives Web site, he has already raised Rs 462 lakhs. Photograph: Kind courtesy HIAL
Could you share your education-related experiences?
Whatever I learn by applying what I learnt at school becomes an experience that stays with me in my life.
Whatever I wrote in my exams is long gone.
The right method is to teach in a manner that the education can be retained.
As a species, human beings have not evolved to learn by sitting in room for hours and listening to lectures.
Evolution has designed us to learn by seeing, and applying, what others are doing.
Learning by doing is in our genes.
We are applying the wrong method by making our children and youth sit in a classroom for eight hours, listening to someone talk.
That may work for some, but it cannot be good in life.
There is a strong need to make education more applied, more engaged, more hands on.
At present, our education system is about reading, writing and arithmetic.
It focuses on the head, the brain and the intellect.
A more holistic education would focus on the head, the hand and the heart.
Focusing on the head is good, but not enough.
Hands are needed to create, build and repair. You cannot survive without the skill of hands.
But that too is not enough because you could also cause a lot of damage to the world with the skill of the hands.
A kind and compassionate heart that cares for not oneself but for the other beings on the planet is the only way to make this world a good place.
With just the brain, and even hands, we can only do what we have done to our environment so far. In the process, we are committing suicide.
If you had a kind heart, you would not do that.
We should respect all life and this learning needs to start as early as possible, in one's childhood.
I have founded the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, which is a campaign to improve our flawed education system.
I strongly feel there is a lot of change required in our country's education policy.
Our school takes failures from the system and teaches them via experience.
In fact, the students run the school themselves and they learn by doing.
They run a farm, they keep animals, make food products and engage in solving real life problems that they face in Ladakh.
IMAGE: 'Ice stupas store water during the winter in form of ice. During the spring, the ice melts and provides water for irrigation and other purposes. One ice stupa can store as much as 3 million litres of water,' explains Wangchuk. Photographs: Kind courtesy HIAL and icestupa.org
What else are you working on at present?
There are thousands of problems and a solution is needed for each of them.
There is no way I can solve every problem so I am working to create the mother of all solutions through a university where young people will observe the spirit of innovation and find these solutions.
They will be empowered and will work to improve their capacity and capability.
We are setting up a mountain university in Ladakh called the Himalaya Institute of Alternatives.
We in Ladakh live high up in the Himalayas. Our solutions cannot come from New Delhi.
This institute aims to create a sustainable ecosystem of constant innovation wherein youth from different Himalayan countries will come together to research the issues faced by mountain people in education, culture and environment.
They will formulate ways to resolve those issues through out-of-the-box ideas and a practical application of knowledge.
The world needs real-world universities, 'doer' universities.
If our model is successful, we hope it will have a ripple effect outside.
We are looking for support from the people. We have started the crowd funding process and are approaching corporates to support us through their CSR efforts.
I am personally working on a stupa glacier, which is basically a water reservoir, in Ladakh.
These ice stupas store water during the winter season in form of ice.
During the spring, the ice melts and provides water for irrigation and other purposes.
One ice stupa can store as much as 3 million litres of water.
I want the reservoirs to connect to people, which is why I call them ice stupas.
My effort is to turn them into an opportunity and an asset.
How serious is the climate change problem?
It is a serious threat. We can see visible signs. We cannot stop at Ladakh. We have to fight this globally.