Lovely Leh


by Masood Hussain

A Selfie in Hollywood: Wangchuk with Chhewang Norphel, the glacier builder

A Selfie in Hollywood: Wangchuk with Chhewang Norphel, the glacier builder

Rinchan Shah apart, Kashmir has Ladakh written in bold on its history, primarily for two reasons. Firstly, it was a key stop on our access to the desi Silk Route that linked us to Tibet and Central Asia. This route was quite frequently being traversed at huge costs by Cashmere merchants to secure the raw material for the surging shawl industry, once the main forex earner and probably the key factor for Kashmir’s slavery too.

Secondly, caravans of poor, mal-nourished, ill-clad Kashmiri peasants would routinely carry supplies to Dogra garrisons in Gilgit through Ladakh periphery and would be consumed by weather, hunger or both or by the slave-merchants.

Post-partition, when Lorries and aircrafts replaced the mules and donkeys, Kashmiris will still feel punished when the government would deploy them to Leh for service delivery or administration. By and large, teacher was the most sought-after. I know dozens of teachers who have served a fair part of their career teaching Ladakh. That might have helped Ladakh be literate, it hardly educated the desert.

But changes take it own time. Incidentally when Batta (Pandits) left Kashmir in 1990s, the Boutta (Ladakhis) had already started triggering a change. Leh’s self-discovery started with a serious communal agitation in 1989 that eventually fetched it an autonomous hill development council in 1995. Though its aspirations go beyond what it has both on political and economic front, Leh has completely changed in last 26 years. I am a perennial visitor to Leh. Every time I visit, the hate sloganeering painting the desert stones, never bothers me. For me the visit is a re-linkage to my ancient futures. 



Ladakh is not a huge demography, Leh is even smaller. The 2011 headcount could enumerate only 133487. While creating a trend in a small population is much easier but triggering a shift in a population scattered in a huge desert – 3 individuals living per square kilometer or 21424 households in 111 villages scattered in a land mass of 451110 sq kms – is very expensive. For ages we know we have lot of thermal energy in Pogo Valley but the cost of transmission is the factor that is delaying the beginning.

But if a demography surviving with climatic limitations, fewer resources and a cultural disconnect (its physical interaction with Tibet and China literally stopped after the last Sino-Indian conflict in 1965) creates trends unmatched by other societies, it must be a model. That is exactly what it is.

With 80.48 percent of its population knowing how to read and write, Leh is playing second fiddle to Jammu district in literacy rate. After the arid region opened for tourism, nearly 90 percent of the foreign tourists visiting J&K go to Ladakh, precisely to Leh.

Trade relations between Leh and Srinagar are minimal. Only part of the Pasham wool finds way to Srinagar as Kashmir imports most of its requirements from abroad, mostly from Mongolia. Its newfound Seabuckthorn economy links the desert with major FMCG manufacturers. Much earlier, it has shifted its educational base to Chandigarh and Jammu.

The major milestone in Leh’s change was when the youngsters in 1990s started questioning the primers. They had only one question: Why should we teach an elephant when it does not exist in Ladakh? Involving community, these youngsters created the new syllabus and their new patshalas. It happened a century after the first school was opened in the region in 1889. Once these new educational laboratories established their credentials, funds trickled from Western charities. Leh is J&K’s No 1 district in getting private foreign funds as the best performing NGOs work in the desert on all fronts – education, ecology, renewable energy, culture, and hospitality.

Engineer Sonam Wangchuk, the man who was Phunsukh Wangdu, a role that Aamir Khan played in his film 3 Idiots

Engineer Sonam Wangchuk, the man who was Phunsukh Wangdu, a role that Aamir Khan played in his film 3 Idiots

One person who has remained part of this change is Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineering graduate from REC Srinagar, and the founder of SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh), one of the most known NGOs in the region that has stakes in almost everything from education to energy. The man who has inspired Amir Khan to make 3 Idiots, Wangchuk is J&K’s first recipient of Rolex Enterprise Award ever – a grant of one lakh Swiss Francs, that he was bestowed with last Tuesday in Hollywood.

The award has an interesting background.

A resident of Skara Mahey village, the 1936 born Chewang Norphel did a Civil Engineering diploma from Lucknow in 1960, joined government in 1966 and retired as an Executive Engineer in March 1995. Then joined NGO Leh Nutrition Project, and served it for 17 years till August 2012. Then he became famous. Aware of the peasant desperation to have water, especially after climatic change triggered certain change, he started experimenting with creating artificial glaciers. Helped by Department of Science & Technology and mangers of Operation Sadhbhavna, he would take excess water in summer to places hidden from sun light and with the fall in temperature, it will become a flat glacier that would help peasants in sowing their crop next season. He got a series of awards in recognition of this innovation, the last in 2015 when President Pranab Mukherjee handed over him the Padma Shri.

Wangchuk took the technology little further. Last summer, he managed $125000 crowd-funding and created a vertical glacier (ice stupa) in Phyang village. After establishing that vertical glacier melts slowly than Norphel’s flat glaciers, he pitched for the Rolex Award suggesting he will set-up 20 stupas. Prior to getting the award last week, Wangchuk-Norphel team trained a Sikkim official team, sponsored by UNDP to Leh, to learn the technology. Also, Wangchuk had flown to Swiss Alps range to set up first ice stupa in Europe only early this month.

There are two impressively interesting things. One, Wangchuk had the option of flying any of his relatives to the award. He took Aba Norphel instead to “honour his work of the past 30 years in the field of artificial glaciers despite limited resources and support.” Two, the nearly Rs 70 lakh award money, is being contributed as seed money by Wangchuk to establish an alternative university on the 65-hectare land that villagers donated.

That is why I would suggest Kashmir’s civil society to go on yearly pilgrimage to Leh, every summer.


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