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Rewriting the Books in Ladakh

When they open to page 52 of the Indian government’s “brand new” class seven social science textbook later this year, students in Ladakh, a mountainous region of far northern India, will find a number of curious claims about the land they call home. One is that “Ladakh is a vast sandy desert with bare gravel slopes and rocky mountains. Because of the severe cold, vegetation can not survive.” Bemused, they might point out to their teacher that, on their way to school, they passed a vast variety of plants—poplar trees, stinging nettles, wild roses, Artemisia—and very little sand.


Students in the mountain village of Khardong, far from the Indus River, might react with confusion to the text’s assertion that “settlement can be found only along the river valley.” And the classification of Ladakh as a “cold desert” in which “surface water is frozen due to extremely low temperature”—a description of permafrost, which is found nowhere in the region—should thoroughly puzzle the students.


These examples illustrate one of the many challenges faced by educators in a region as culturally and geographically distinctive as Ladakh. It is an island of diverse traditions within the larger political and cultural amalgam that is the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. As Sonam Wangchuk, Ladakh’s most prominent education reformer, put it, “Ladakh is a cultural frontier, where Islam from the west met Tibetan Buddhism from the east.” The task of creating educational materials that reflect Ladakh’s unique cultural identity and place in Central Asia is difficult enough, and is made all the more difficult by inaccurate or irrelevant information produced by teams of “experts” from the plains of India, who have probably never set foot in Ladakh.


The publications team of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), a nonprofit organization founded by Wangchuk and several others in 1988, is determined to change this state of affairs. They worked feverishly through the summer of 2003 to produce new science and social science textbooks for class four, and to replace a 1986 text in the Leh District of Ladakh for this school year. The new texts strive to offer students information that is culturally and environmentally relevant to their lives and experiences in a way that enhances their appreciation of more general scientific and geographical lessons. With the inclusion of chapters such as “Life in a Farming Village,” “A Story of Leh Town,” and “Wildlife of Ladakh,” the staff of SECMOL hope the books will awaken young students to the rich variety of the land in which they live and its traditions, in the process bringing their own experiences and knowledge of Ladakh into the classroom.


A Broken System


Prior to 1988, it would have been fair to describe education in Ladakh as hopelessly inadequate, and perhaps, in social terms, as doing more damage than good. Upon entering primary school, Ladakhi children had to memorize and regurgitate information about foreign places in a foreign tongue, Urdu—the official language of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, of which the predominantly Buddhist region of Ladakh has been a part since 1947.


The most common motivator in classrooms was fear, whether of beatings or of being labeled ignorant or “backward” if a wrong answer was given, several students said. Parents thought their responsibility for their children’s education ended at the door of their local government school. The fact that they had sent their children was enough—the general assumption was that there was no role for them in the school’s management. Most teachers hailed from other parts of Jammu and Kashmir and of India, and regarded being posted in Ladakh as a punishment; their frustration was often passed on to their pupils, in the form of anger, apathy, or the denigration of all things Ladakhi—especially the language. Often they would not even show up for class, Wangchuk and older residential students at SECMOL recall.


The systemic educational failure was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by the 95 percent failure rate of those taking the 10th class exam, a make-or-break test that functions as a kind of passport for future opportunities in employment or higher education.


In 1988, as a direct response to these discouraging conditions, Wangchuk and several other university students founded SECMOL upon their return home from other parts of India. Wangchuk had just completed his degree in mechanical engineering from a university in Srinagar. In order to earn money for his tuition, he had spent his winter breaks coaching students for their 10th class exam. The experience changed his life, and, subsequently, the way students would learn in Ladakh.


“One thing I discovered was that these students were so keen to learn,” he said. “You tell them the most complex things in trigonometry or physics, and they grasped it all. But when it came to writing it, as an answer to a question in examination, they were very poor, because of this language confusion. They were not sufficiently capable in any of the languages.


“I started thinking that I had to change this system. You know, if 95 percent of the products fail, not just in schools, in any system whether it is a car factory or jam factory, then it is not the product, it is the system … that has a defect, and the system has to be changed.” The kind of changes he and his partners envisioned were reflected in the group’s name: meaningful educational reform and holistic learning could only be achieved through, and with, a cultural revival in the classroom.


A Land in Transition


Bounded by high mountains on all sides, Ladakh is one of the most remote regions of India. It is classified by geographers as high-altitude desert, and with settlements ranging from altitudes of 8,000 to 12,000 feet, it is often described as a “hostile environment.” Yet Ladakh has for many centuries been host to thriving communities of small farmers and pastoralists, including families that have been cultivating the same patches of land for over 600 years, and nomadic herders on the Changthang plains near the border with Tibet. Long a hub in the busy Central Asian trading routes of centuries past, Ladakh is today an area of great geopolitical importance. It forms the tranquil eastern part of the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir in India, and is bounded to the west, north, and east by contested borders with China and Pakistan.


A slight majority of Ladakhis are Tibetan Buddhists, complemented by a sizable Muslim population, particularly in areas of western Ladakh such as Kargil. Due to such intermingling—and the presence of pockets of other unique cultures such as the Brokpas and Baltis—the region has developed a rich diversity of traditions and linguistic variations, as well as a history of tolerance and communal harmony. Yet Ladakh is referred to by many outsiders as “Little Tibet,” a title that captures its many striking similarities to Tibet in terms of both terrain and culture. Indeed, the Ladakhi language is closely related to Tibetan, and Tibetan Buddhism colors many aspects of society.


In 1974 Ladakh was officially opened to tourism, and Western-style development initiatives were implemented in earnest. Taken together, the steadily increasing numbers of foreign visitors, the ubiquitous military presence, and the conventional development policies enthusiastically pushed by administrators of the region have contributed to a number of rapid changes in the social and economic fabric of the region. The burgeoning cash economy, with its epicenter in Leh, the region’s capital, has fostered the growth of a new class of Ladakhis dependent on salaries, living in urban housing or barracks, and divorced from the land to an extent that would have been inconceivable 40 years ago.


Serious problems of pollution, social divisions, and cultural erosion have accompanied this headlong rush into modernity in Ladakh. Many observers have documented, for example, the dramatic transformation of Leh from a sleepy collection of farms and shops to a bustling, traffic-clogged, sprawling city, surrounded by archipelagos of cement housing colonies that have sprung up in the desert to accommodate the scores of people relocating from rural communities.1


Threats to Traditional Learning


The story of education in Ladakh is intimately tied to the story of its people’s introduction to Western concepts of progress and to the global marketplace. Prior to the 1970s, education in Ladakh largely took place in the village, in the fields, and by the family hearth. The work of the farm was traditionally shared by the entire family and by the village as a whole, with intricate customs of labor-sharing designed to lighten everyone’s work on a rotating basis. Children learned, by watching and working alongside their parents and neighbors, when and how to plough, sow, irrigate, and harvest the food that sustained them, and when to lead their yaks and other animals to pasture in the summer. The songs and stories of Ladakh’s past—tales of the epic Tibetan pre-Buddhist Gesar saga or paeans to life in the mountains—would often be passed down orally while this work was being done. Each child would grow to become competent enough to build and maintain his or her own house, manage the farm or herd, and meet the family’s needs.


More specialized education took place as well: amchis, practitioners of traditional Tibetan medicine, would undergo rigorous training for years under an older teacher in the complex techniques of diagnosis and preparation of herbal medicines. Many Buddhist families would send at least one son to the local gonpa, or Tibetan Buddhist monastery, where he would receive extensive instruction in the Mahayana tradition’s scriptures, and practice debate in topics ranging from metaphysics to meditation to medicine. But for most children, experience and community were their greatest teachers, and the purpose of education—though it was not formally labeled as such—was the preparation of youth for lives of meaningful work and the transmission of Ladakh’s unique cultural values. This education allowed stable, prosperous communities to continue meeting their own needs.


Today, however, with the lure of tourist dollars and government money being poured into the sensitive border region, more and more young people are compelled to take jobs as trekking guides and drivers, laborers, soldiers, or, for a select and highly educated few, civil servants. Many families grow vegetables and potatoes exclusively for sale to the army or in the markets of Leh. The rapid growth of the market economy in Ladakh has led to a labor drain in many villages. With children away at school, and many of the men at jobs in Leh and other parts of Jammu and Kashmir, many families are now forced to hire Nepali or Bihari laborers to help with field work.


The pressure to secure the best education for their children has also led many parents to send them to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. For those who can afford it, private schools in Leh have generally, since the 1970s, offered the highest quality formal instruction in Ladakh. In many cases, a parent or relative will even move to Leh for part of the year so the child will not have to live alone in an unfamiliar and potentially threatening environment. This flight of resources— and with it the involvement of concerned and often influential parents—from many rural government schools has only further compromised their quality.


The Need for Reform


SECMOL began to address the dysfunction which its founders had experienced firsthand in their own youth, by working on a small scale. Supported by funds garnered through a series of cultural performances and slideshows of traditional life in Ladakh that it had organized in its earliest days, the group started offering courses for 10th class students and vocational training for dropouts who had failed the exams.


“They were really in a very difficult situation because they were considered failures by the society,” Wangchuk recalls, “and these were students who had otherwise been on the farm producing their own food. Farming was a skill that you learned from your parents. But these children were sent to schools with the hope that they would fit into another sort of educated society. So they had lost the traditional skills and they had not acquired the new skills. … They were lost in between and therefore in a very depressed condition.”


Having experimented with these “band-aid” solutions, Wangchuk, who is now the general secretary of the organization, and the other founders recognized that without some sort of systemic change they would be dealing with a steady flow of the same kinds of cases for years. The group took a hard look at the schools and made a number of disturbing discoveries, which they grouped into four main problem areas: inappropriate language medium approaches; unfamiliar and culturally irrelevant content in texts and curricula; untrained teachers; and most importantly, parents who had no sense of ownership of their community’s schools. As a result, the children of Ladakh were perennial victims of the inefficient implementation of an inappropriate model of instruction, forced to study flora and fauna from tropical India, read “classical” texts such as Homer’s Iliad in difficult English, and memorize formulas and definitions in languages they could barely grasp.


Building a Culture of Ownership


SECMOL’s visionaries soon set to work to effect nothing less than a seismic shift in Ladakh’s culture of education, at both the government and village levels. From the beginning, the organization’s primary goal was to make villagers aware of choices they did not know were available to them. The challenges and inertia they faced were daunting: under-trained teachers were resistant to change, parents were disengaged and uninformed, and a debilitating distance stretched between the situation on the ground and its government overseers.


SECMOL’s first major success came in 1991, when its staff approached parents in the village of Saspol to gauge interest in implementing some unprecedented changes in the local government high school. Greeted with enthusiasm by the villagers and with support from the district education officer in Leh, they proceeded to train the school’s teachers to use teaching aids and more child-centered methods in order to supplement and bring to life the material in the textbooks. Seeing the positive response of their children, the villagers embraced the changes wholeheartedly, and collectively took on a new level of responsibility and involvement in the school’s upkeep. Soon Saspol’s success came to the attention of other villages, which started asking for SECMOL’s support to implement similar changes in their own government schools.


SECMOL announced on local radio that it would work with 30 schools on a first-come, first-served basis. Within a day the slots were filled, and due to intense interest from other villages, it accepted three additional schools. From the beginning, in training sessions and discussions with villagers, SECMOL staff emphasized that success depended entirely on villagers’ involvement in improving their own schools. To pay for the training of their own teachers, the villagers went door to door to collect money from each family in their own village, representing the tangible investment everyone had pledged to make.


With the successful conversion of these 33 schools to a more Ladakh-relevant and child-friendly manner of teaching, SECMOL in 1994 officially launched Operation New Hope, a program that envisioned a series of broad-based reforms for the region’s school system. Conceived as a three-way partnership between villagers, the government, and concerned non-govern- mental organizations (NGOs), Operation New Hope was soon adopted by the newly established Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, a regional government for Ladakh within Jammu and Kashmir, as its official education policy. SECMOL’s methods were eventually taken to each of the more than 250 government primary schools across Ladakh. Although the quality of the program was inevitably diluted by such a rapid expansion—stretching SECMOL’s small staff quite thin—the official support reflected the fact that education reforms in Ladakh had reached a turning point.


In researching ways to consolidate the gains they had made, Wangchuk and his colleagues came across a little-known provision in the New Education Policy of the Government of India from 1986. It called for the establishment of Village Education Committees to help manage and supervise the operation of government schools. Soon SECMOL launched a program to raise awareness among villagers of the rights that had legally been theirs all along, lying dormant in the law books. SECMOL sent out teams of students to conduct discussions in villages about how parents could become more involved in their schools and how they could work with their children’s teachers without interfering unduly in the daily running of the school. Particular emphasis was placed on welcoming and cooperating with, rather than confronting, teachers—even those whose performance was sub-par. Many of the participants responded with enthusiasm to the training, and the village education committees became the central instrument of democratic community involvement in education in many villages.


Two years ago the government education department took over the teacher-training component of Operation New Hope, freeing SECMOL to focus more on Village Education Committee work and awareness campaigns. “They have done quite a good job,” Wangchuk said. “But there is so much potential.” He would like to see the government’s teacher training institute improved, so that headmasters of schools do not have to take time away from their work to conduct training sessions. But with the government having taken responsibility for instructing its own teachers in culturally relevant and child-friendly methods, in response to the overwhelming popular support for such an approach, Wangchuk has admitted to a certain amount of satisfaction with the progress that has been made.


Language Lessons


Early in their efforts to diagnose the underlying causes of the alarming failure and dropout rates of Ladakhi students, Wangchuk and his colleagues zeroed in on language use. Upon starting school at the age of five or six, children had to switch from Ladakhi, the only language they had ever known, to Urdu, the official language of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.


“It used to be a traumatic experience for the children to be in schools, suddenly welcomed with a beating stick, and then they are required to re-learn everything, all that they had known. Oma [“milk” in Ladakhi] for dudh—you would be slapped if you said oma,” Wangchuk said. “Every time that they said something that they knew in Ladakhi so well, they would be insulted for not knowing it in Urdu.”


When students arrived in ninth class, the medium of instruction abruptly changed to English, the language of opportunity in Ladakh as throughout much of India. The long struggle to learn Urdu was inexplicably abandoned, and students had to re-learn topics in science, mathematics, and geography in English, on top of keeping up with the new material. Incredibly, they had two years to master this new tongue before taking the all-important 10th class exam. “We would read without understanding,” says student Stanzin Chuskit of her English studies in those two years. Several of the resident students at SECMOL’s campus outside Leh recall that little time was devoted to basic grammar instruction in ninth and 10th classes; rather, teachers would have students read essays from guidebooks well above their level of comprehension. The lessons emphasized repetition and memorization of questions and answers, rather than learning the basic structure of the language. No time was devoted to conversation or oral practice.


“I do not know how this kind of design could come to be,” Wangchuk marveled. “It is what you would design for your enemy, not for your nation’s future citizens. If you ask me today I often wonder how those five percent passed [the 10th class exam].”


Unlike many indigenous tongues in other parts of the world, Ladakhi is still a strong language, spoken by virtually all of the region’s 235,000 inhabitants. New pop songs are recorded in Ladakhi every year, and Ladakhi-language news broadcast by Leh radio are a common evening diversion in many homes. But the long-term impact of the official promotion of English and Urdu, and the powerful economic incentives to learn them, is difficult to predict. The historical suppression of Ladakhi in the classroom, moreover, has fallaciously suggested to students that their own language is unfit for the study of “modern subjects” such as science and mathematics, and that advancement is only possible if they subordinate the project of learning in their own tongue to that of learning in English.


Many of the students at SECMOL’s campus have little fear that their mother tongue will suffer due to the intense emphasis on learning English throughout Ladakh. “I will never forget Ladakhi,” said Choron Angmo. “I have been speaking it since I was born.” Her fellow students echo these sentiments, noting that, even if English is the lingua franca of official government circles and of that sector of society representing high achievement, everyone speaks Ladakhi at home. The students stressed the importance of striking a balance between the use of Ladakhi and the use of English. They all study on their own, and linger after their classes to fire questions on English grammar at their volunteer teacher. “We want to learn English,” Tsewang Paldan said, “because it is an international language.” All expressed their firm desire to improve their English, regarding its mastery as the gateway not just to accomplishment in Ladakh, but to broader knowledge of the world as well.


Even so, the students think that there should be more Ladakhi language instruction in the schools. “It’s a shame that I didn’t learn [Bodyik] in school,” Diskit Spaldon said. “Now it is difficult for me.” Bodyik, or written Ladakhi, instruction is a much more common feature in primary schools these days. But Ladakhi as a medium of instruction has long been an elusive prospect.


Rebecca Norman, who has worked with SECMOL for 10 years, said she would love to see Ladakhi more broadly used as a medium of instruction. But the obstacles, she noted, are imposing—the way Ladakhi is usually written is akin to classical Tibetan, and very few people outside of religious and scholarly circles are able to read and write it. Those within these circles even contend, as Norman puts it, that the spoken version of Ladakhi is “a colloquial corruption” of the sacred script.


Norman points out the dramatic difference between spoken Ladakhi and its classical written form: “It’s like asking someone who speaks English to read Dutch—it’s from the same root but entirely different.” If they had switched to Ladakhi in the classroom too soon, before developing a more comprehensible written version that resembled the spoken tongue, educators would have run the risk that parents would pull their children out of government schools, fearing that their children would be set back in their studies. Moreover, some teachers are not proficient enough in Bodyik to offer proper instruction, and some Muslim Ladakhis do not read it at all.


“Seven or eight years ago we made a strategic decision to support the use of English as a medium, as a neutral stepping-stone that everyone could accept,” Wangchuk said. “In the meantime we would work to popularize Ladakhi and its image, and to standardize [a written form].”


One of the main priorities of SECMOL’s publications team—which Norman, a fluent speaker and reader of Ladakhi, helps direct—is the development of materials in a colloquial written form of Ladakhi. To date they have produced four children’s storybooks, with text in both English and the new form of Bodyik, and a range of other educational materials for popular consumption.


With its regular publication over the last 10 years of Ladakh’s only locally produced full-length magazine, Ladags Melong (Mirror of Ladakh), SECMOL has managed to tackle some tough issues and, in the process, promote new Bodyik as a medium of written communication. Most of the articles are printed in both English and new Bodyik, and all cover locally relevant subjects. With a small staff, the magazine has built a large following, managing to produce detailed coverage of topics as varied as the Dalai Lama’s visits, pollution of the Indus River, and campaigns for local elections. Wangchuk and Norman cite the magazine as one of the main engines for developing and disseminating a standardized Bodyik.


These efforts have yielded promising results. Recently, the head of the Hill Council announced that Ladakhi would be used as a medium of instruction in classrooms “in a few years.” And, given the progress made so far, Wangchuk predicted, “I think in three years or so we’ll have Ladakhi as a medium in primary classrooms.”


Education for Development


In Ladakh there is a distinct danger that what children learn in the classroom under the dominant system will reinforce the distorted impressions that the flood of images and products from Western consumer cultures are already promoting. Such changes in taste, of course, are not necessarily incompatible with a strong cultural identity, but they speak to the powerful attraction of previously foreign ways of life, and to the way they shape the education of Ladakhi youth beyond the classroom.


Inside the classroom, the Western notion of progress is subtly encouraged by social studies texts that discuss the merits of huge dams or other projects in unequivocal terms, and emphasize the necessity for increased trade as an answer to Ladakh’s problems. The prevailing, but fairly recent, sentiment in Ladakh, as in much of India, is that engineers, civil servants, and other specialists represent the pinnacle of achievement.


The Western approach to education, which is intended to produce specialists and experts in specific disciplines, has only come under question since SECMOL started pushing for reforms. More people are coming to recognize that this model poses a threat to traditional skills—for example, the capacity of most Ladakhis to manage farms in a difficult environment, build their own houses, process their own food, or manage their own business affairs. The need for a curriculum that respects and reflects traditional vocations and provides for training in such areas is becoming more apparent to those working in education. An explanatory note in SECMOL’s spring 1998 newsletter takes a grim view of the situation prior to the organization’s founding, and of the cultural current against which it is still swimming: “In the name of ‘development’ people have lost their self-reliance and self-esteem and become subsidy beggars. In the name of ‘modern’ education children have learnt to hate themselves and their roots. … In every possible way SECMOL strives to rebuild the confidence of the Ladakhis and to restore the lost pride in their own cultural roots. This we believe is the only way to save, preserve and strengthen the wisdom, cultural heritage and the unique identity of this land and its people.”


The Alternative Institute


Ladakhis have, over the centuries, accumulated a great deal of specialized knowledge about medicine, philosophy, farming, and the local environment. As any extended visit to a village demonstrates, Ladakhis are truly experts in community. SECMOL has sustained and built on this tradition in a number of impressive ways, most visibly at its Alternative Institute campus near the village of Phey, about 18 kilometers from Leh. Built from scratch starting in 1994 on a sere patch of desert on the banks of the Indus River, the campus is now a model of appropriate technology use and a working community in the truest sense. As its name suggests, it is intended to offer an alternative to the dominant model of both development and education as they have been conventionally pursued, in tandem, in Ladakh in the last few decades.


The campus and its many programs are run by a handful of full-time staff and more than two dozen student residents, who devote part of their time to work—cooking, construction, maintenance, milking cows, and irrigating vegetable patches and the budding forest of windbreak trees—and part of their time to study. The campus was designed, largely by Wangchuk, to be a working model of renewable energy technologies. Outside the kitchen are two large solar cookers built by students under the guidance of engineers from the Ladakh Ecological Development Group. The cookers focus the sun’s energy onto mirrors built into holes in the wall, for boiling water and cooking large amounts of food. A collection of solar panels, connected to 16 batteries in a specially designed hut near the river, can deliver two kilowatts of power for lighting, running computers and power tools, and pumping river water. The walls of the main office and other buildings are made of rammed earth, a highly effective insulator, and were partially built into the ground on the north side for additional heat conservation. Solar pumps are used for irrigation, and Wangchuk plans to design a river-powered pump as well.


Designed to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer, the main hall has been the scene of scores of training sessions for teachers, Village Education Committee members, and parents. In recent years SECMOL has used the campus to host summer camps for more than 1,000 younger students, during which the students were introduced to topics such as environmental awareness and world events that are not covered in the mainstream curriculum.


The students residing at SECMOL fall into three categories: eight are studying for one year to be the future staff of a rural media team, which will travel throughout Ladakh to document happenings, collect news, interview people, and produce video and radio documentaries for SECMOL media; 13 are residents of the hostel, attending 11th class at the Government Higher Secondary School in Leh during the day and assisting with tasks around the campus and receiving extra instruction in the evening; and about eight are studying by correspondence for their college degrees through Jammu University while working as part-time staff, spending most of their working time with Village Education Committees in various villages.


The hostel students have all made a commitment to become teachers in their villages, a SECMOL program designed to address one of the more intractable problems of primary education in a region with such difficult and varied terrain as Ladakh. Many of the teachers posted in village schools have come from outside or other parts of Ladakh, and are thus unfamiliar with and have no investment in the locality in which they served. Their lack of motivation and a rash of transfers after only one or two years disrupts the learning process. Several former SECMOL hostel students have already been selected as teachers.


Konchok Norgay is a senior student residing at the hostel from a remote part of Changthang. He studies for his 12th class exams while he works full-time for SECMOL. He is responsible for installing, maintaining, and helping to design all the solar equipment on campus, and he can often be found with calculator in hand, computing the dimensions for some new project. On a given night, he will check the inverter connected to the batteries storing the sun’s energy, and then head to dinner for a traditional Ladakhi meal of thukpa or skyu, followed by an enthusiastic rendition of an old Ladakhi song with his fellow students. One night Norgay rose to make a speech in which he thanked departing members of the textbook team from south India for their efforts to “help Ladakhi children learn about their own culture.” He pointed out that he and his contemporaries missed out on such opportunities, and are thus acutely aware of the need for such materials.


In a sense, Norgay and his experience represent both the problems that SECMOL was created to address and the hope it has given a new generation of Ladakhis. Equally conversant in the language of modern technology and the traditions of his parents, conscious of the deep flaws in the government-sponsored education he has received, he and his fellow students are emblematic of SECMOL’s effort to co-opt and integrate the changes that have descended on Ladakh and to harness and enlist the technology and specialized knowledge brought from the West in the project of strengthening communities and reclaiming Ladakhi values in education. A walk around the Alternative Institute clearly shows that technology has been made to serve a uniquely Ladakhi vision of how children should learn and lead meaningful lives, rather than the other way around. Wangchuk speaks hopefully of one day turning the campus into the site of an “alternative university,” where students could take courses in women’s leadership, sustainable development, media production, renewable energy technologies, and, of course, education. Such offerings would attempt to fill a vacuum left by the somewhat limited course options and scheduling difficulties found at the Government Degree College in Leh. Whether or not the vision becomes reality, SECMOL and its partners in the government, villages, and other NGOs will continue to work to reclaim education for Ladakhis, to “preserve and strengthen the wisdom, cultural heritage, and unique identity”2 of Ladakh in the broadest possible sense by opening legions of young minds to the lessons of the past and the possibilities of the future.


Innovation in Changthang


The region of Changthang in eastern Ladakh is sparsely populated by semi-nomadic herding communities and small, widely scattered villages. Villages often consist of no more than 20 or 30 families; the whole population of Changthang is somewhere around 5,000 people. One of the coldest areas of Ladakh, its vast and difficult terrain, harsh weather, and unique demographics have long posed significant challenges for educators.


Middle schools and high schools are as scattered as the communities they are meant to serve in Changthang, and exist in numbers that are not justified by the small population. They are often short of teachers and resources. Some do not even have enough students to operate effectively. When the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) examined the situation in 1997, the organization saw these circumstances as a tragic dilution of resources that was characteristic of Ladakh as a whole. SECMOL came up with an unusual and innovative suggestion: centralize these dispersed and ineffective schools into one large, residential school where students would have access to the teachers and resources they deserved.


It was a radical idea. Due to factors of politics and prestige a profusion of schools had sprung up, and the idea of downgrading a village school from middle to primary—a move necessary to make the new school a reality—was difficult to swallow for some village leaders. But the vision SECMOL took to the communities and government officials was compelling enough to override such concerns, and the project went ahead with blessings and support from both groups in 1997.


Central to the success of the proposed school, to be known as the Centralised Residential Government High School of Lalok, was the contribution of voluntary labor from every family. On a rotating basis over four years, each family in Lalok contributed four weeks of labor in the construction of the school. SECMOL, in addition to collecting grassroots support for the concept, designed the buildings and covered the costs of all materials and skilled labor. The Autonomous Hill Development Council contributed money for food and furniture for the students residing in the school hostel.


The innovative partnerships involved in the creation of the Lalok school have parallels in both its structural and conceptual design. Partially built into the earth for insulation from the notorious winds of Changthang, it is solar-powered and features two- to three-foot-thick earthen walls to further conserve energy. This harnessing of appropriate technologies—using local materials such as earth and stone—should enable another innovation in the school’s operation: altering the calendar of study to give students a break during the planting and harvest seasons. Most schools in Ladakh have vacation in winter because the government claims that it cannot heat schools during Ladakh’s coldest months. This requires students to be in class throughout the summer, when most of the farming and other activities of Ladakh’s traditional economy take place. Thanks to its solar-heated classrooms, the Lalok school plans to not only allow the students to continue their learning with their families in spring and autumn, but also to incorporate those experiences into science, mathematics, and other classes.


For example, SECMOL co-founder Wangchuk explained, students can study statistics by calculating the yield of the autumn harvest compared to what was planted in the spring. There are plans for more vocational training as well. Such integration, if successful, could serve as an eye-opening model for other schools in Ladakh, reflecting SECMOL’s intention that Lalok, in addition to providing its own students with a high-quality education, will function as a laboratory for new, culturally appropriate approaches to student-centered learning.


1. For an in-depth discussion and analysis of the rapid changes Western-style development has brought to Ladakh, juxtaposed with a vivid portrait of traditional Ladakhi lifestyles, see Norberg-Hodge (1991).


2. SECMOL newsletter. (1998).


Jonathan Mingle is the former news coordinator for Cultural Survival. He spent summer and part of fall 2003 living and working with NGOs in Ladakh. For more information, contact: SECMOL, Near Hill Council Complex, P.O. Box 4, Leh, Ladakh—194101, India. Email:


References and further reading


Norberg-Hodge, H. (1991). Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.


Norman, R. (2001). Getting Started in Ladakhi. Leh, Ladakh: Melong Publications.


Rizvi, J. (1983). Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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