cities/chennai/2017/nov/03/in-an-alternative-universe-1691438.html In an alternative universe...- The New Indian Express

In an alternative universe...

Nature and people become labs in Sonam Wangchuk’s University of Alternatives, Ladakh. Known for unique ideas, he will teach only those who have failed in exams.

Published: 03rd November 2017 09:58 PM  |   Last Updated: 04th November 2017 09:32 AM   |  A+A-

Photo: Sunish P Surendran

Express News Service

CHENNAI: A mechanical engineer and innovator, Sonam Wangchuk is known worldwide for his reforms in education and sustainable living. The layman would probably remember him as the inspiration for Aamir Khan’s character in 3 Idiots. The founder-director of the Students Educational and Cultural movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), Wangchuk innovated a more suitable and pragmatic approach to education in Ladakh, which resulted in a boost of the pass percentage of the students. In fact, at SECMOL, the only criteria to join is to have failed in your exams!

His invention, the Ice Stupa, creates artificial glaciers and stores water from winter to be melted and used in Spring, thus solving water scarcity problems in Ladakh. This concept has now been adopted in Switzerland, Peru and will be soon followed in the US. For this remarkable invention, Wangchuk was awarded the Rolex Award for Enterprise 2016, another addition to his shelf of awards. Recently in the city for the Entrepreneurs Organization Chennai Selected Speaker series, we caught up with the award-winning reformist.

Excerpts follow...
Education reform has been your primary goal. What made you choose this path?
To finance my own engineering studies, I had to teach students in the schools of Ladakh. That’s what changed my life. I got to understand the curriculum, the system, and how all these bright children were failing. The education system was shackling so many bright minds, who could be doing great things. And I could see the impact of the little things I did to change that. I realized this is where life needs me to be, more than what I need. So, I decided to not join the long queue of engineers for work, but rather do something to reform the education system.  

Can the model of SECMOL, a sustainable education model where students grow plants, take care of management, replicated throughout the country and globally?
It can and should be. School should be more about applying knowledge, for which there need to be the fields to do that. At SECMOL, we have application fields for biology, humanities etc. I also feel schools should be smaller in size, and more in number, to have such fields. Most schools look at educating the head but should include the other two ‘h’s — the hands and the heart.
Tell us more about your next project, the 220-acre planned Himalayan University of Alternatives, Ladakh.

The University will have live labs. For instance, in the School of Sustainable tourism students will run homestays themselves. The School of Environmental studies will take care of ice stupas and glaciers. The school of sustainable buildings will have solar-heated buildings made of natural materials. The earnings from these will finance the university — the students will be paying with their hands and mind, not with paper money. This university will rid the status of money, as long as students are applying themselves.

The University is to be built through crowdfunding, and your seed donation of `1 crore which you received as part of the Rolex Award for Enterprise 2016.
Yes, this is perhaps the first crowd-funded university. We wanted to lay the foundation of the university with people of the world, which would seem like their vote of approval for the idea.

What have you learnt from your years as a reformist?
Solutions should not create more other problems. Solutions should be simple enough to solve problems, rather than solve one problem and create 10 more. Like Buddha said, ‘It is easy for human beings to conquer a desire than to fulfil a thousand’. That’s simplicity.

Crowdfunding for the Himalayan
Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh will close by the end of November. To contribute, visit —
For more details visit:

Stay up to date on all the latest Chennai news with The New Indian Express App. Download now


Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp