Sonam Wangchuk | The man from the mountains

The engineer-turned-innovator is demanding special status for Ladakh and seeking to draw the Centre’s special attention to its climate problems

February 05, 2023 01:12 am | Updated 08:27 pm IST

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar

Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable mountain pass at a height of 17,582 feet in India’s youngest Union Territory (U.T.) of Ladakh, hit the headlines for a different reason on Republic Day this year. The move by engineer-turned-innovator Sonam Wangchuk, 51, to organise a rare five-day climate fast at Khardung La, 40 km from Leh, has thrown a major challenge to the Lieutenant-Governor’s administration as well as the Centre on the demand of granting special status to Ladakh.

The 2009 Aamir Khan-starrer Bollywood blockbuster, 3 Idiots, was the first time Mr. Wangchuk came under the national spotlight. The character Phunsukh Wangdu, a maverick non-conformist played by Khan, saw shades of similarity with Mr. Wangchuk’s way of living and idea of life. Mr. Wangchuk is uncomfortable in wearing the tag of Wangdu because he has “his own hard-earned identity”.

Also Read | Centre sowing seeds of militancy in Ladakh by alienating the youth: Sonam Wangchuk

However, Mr. Wangchuk’s unconventional but innovative school, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), had stark similarities with Wangdu’s school in the movie, with indigenous technology making lighting, cooking, and even heating running on solar energy.

Mr. Wangchuk’s handling of the water crisis that Ladakh’s farmers faced during summers left many in awe. He created giant ice stupas in the peak winter of 2014, which acted as water tanks till April-May in the region and irrigated land with 150,000 litres of water stream. He constructed mud houses that can withstand the sub-zero weather of Ladakh with the help of solar energy.

His contribution to Ladakh’s education sector, climate-related issues and ingenious solutions to local problems has earned him around 15 awards so far, including the Ramon Magsaysay award (2018), Eminent Technologist of the Himalayan Region by IIT Mandi (2018) and Global Award for Sustainable Architecture (2017).

Alarmed by the impact of climate change on Ladakh, which is witnessing receding glaciers that feed the Indus river, Mr. Wangchuk on January 21 proposed to hold a five-day fast at Khardung La, where temperature dips to minus-40 degrees Celsius at night, to attract the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the policies pursued by the Lieutenant-Governor’s administration in Ladakh.

He claimed that the Centre’s decisions had yielded no good results for Ladakh in the past three years, after it became a U.T.

This, he said, forced him to start the climate fast. He believes the special status guaranteed under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which empowers local elected bodies rather than the bureaucracy to take decisions on the protection of land, culture and identity, is the only solution to tackle climate change and protect the distinct identity of the people of Ladakh. “Ladakh is a sensitive region and it needs to be handled carefully,” Mr. Wangchuk said, in a veiled reference to China sitting on its borders.

‘House arrest’

Mr. Wangchuk was disallowed to travel to Khardung La and was restricted to the HIAL campus in Phyang, located at a height of 11,500 ft. He was asked to sign a bond to be careful in his speeches and statements and asked to pay ₹40,000 as surety money.

“There was a survey done in Ladakh recently to rank the administration’s performance on a scorecard of five. Most people gave 0-1 marks. It’s this fact the administration wanted to hide by putting me under house arrest and harassing my students,” he said.

But none of these did put out the fire he triggered. The video of Mr. Wangchuk slipping into a sleeping bag on January 21 under open skies with temperature plummeting to minus-16 degree Celsius set the political temperature soaring in Ladakh. Bridging the geographical and political divide between Kargil and Leh, the twin districts of Ladakh, locals as well as political and religious organisations rallied behind Mr. Wangchuk.

A day after he ended his fast on January 26, Ladakh witnessed a spectacle at Polo Ground, Leh, where crowds, who walked long distances to see him, chanted, “We want Sixth Schedule.” Special prayers were held in Buddhist Viharas and other religious places for Mr. Wangchuk’s safety during fasting. While Ladakh rapper Miss Ladoll composed a song on Sixth Schedule, students in Kargil sang Habib Jalib’s poem Main Nahi Manta, Main Nahi Janta (I won’t agree...)”. Support pours in. But for the mountain man, there’s no rest until he meets his goals.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.