A mega block blaster film 3Idiots has touch everyone’s heart, Aamir Khan’s character Rancho turns out to be an unconventional teacher in Ladakh, who is also a brilliant inventor, Phunsukh Wangdu. The inspiration for that character, many say, is a gentleman called Sonam Wangchuk, but this is not acknowledged in the film’s credits. A mechanical engineer by training, an educator, a founder of SECMOL (Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh) in 1988 which is home to 70-100 students, all of who failed their 10th boards. This school “has the distinction of taking failures from the system” and “making living there a learning experience in itself”. A 2002 Ashoka Fellow, Wangchuk is no mean innovator. The SECMOL Alternative Institute (SAI) campus, for instance, is designed to conserve heat, and uses solar energy. They burn no fuels to keep warm even in the bitterly cold winters.
For a man who won the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise, Sonam Wangchuk is keen to solve real life problem, one such problem he came across of acute water scarcity in the cold desert region. So, Wangchuk came up with the idea of ‘Ice Stupas’. “There have been others before who’d worked in this field; a very senior engineer had come up with the idea of artificial horizontal ice fields. But it had problems, such as premature melting,” he says. To address these problems, Wangchuk built vertical ice towers instead, and all through a simple method. Ice Stupas are built during winter, so that the water from it when it starts melting can be used in late spring. “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. When the water is sprayed in the -20 degree temperatures of the Ladakhi winter, it cools and freezes as it falls. And slowly, naturally takes the shape of a giant conical structure. “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.”
It is for this simple yet genius invention that Wangchuk was bestowed with the Rolex Award for Enterprise. He now plans to use the Rs 1 crore prize money as seed fund for his dream project – the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives. The 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. And formulate ways to solve those issues through out-of-the-box ideas and practical application of knowledge. “The world needs real-world universities, ‘doer’ universities. We’re going to set up one model of it in Ladakh. And if it is successful, we hope it’ll have a ripple effect from New Delhi to New York,” Wangchuk enthusiastically said.
The new season of KBC 9 introduces a unique Friday show “Nai Chah Nai Rah” featuring Mr Sonam Wangchuk along with a student of his. Mr Wangchuk is also the personality is aired on 12th October. On the show, Mr Wangchuk offered a detailed explanation of how the Ice Stupa Project is helping the people of Ladakh towards a greener life – a stupa is the store house of 3 lakh litres of water. He is an inspiration for not only engineers out there but for all the living beings to think out of box solution for the betterment of people’s life.