This section on Social Innovation is made possible with the support of Deshpande Foundation India.
SECMOL – Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh is a fully sustainable school located in a village called Phey, 20 kms away from the main city of Leh. Sonam Wangchuk and a group of Ladakhis founded it in the year 1988 with the aim of achieving educational reform in Ladakh. It is a residential school that can accommodate approximately 30 students and as many volunteers.
Started with the idea of leading educational reform in Ladakh, SECMOL has diverse and ingenious ways of ensuring that its students learn. These kids come from varied socio-economic backgrounds and from all over Ladakh. The curriculum is designed in such a way that most of their learning is ‘self-learning’. The school also tries to follow a 100% sustainable model and how they have implemented it is marvellous.
I stayed at the school as a volunteer for 6 weeks during the months of October – December, 2014. In my stay there I experienced -15 degrees (a first for me), learned that Ladakhi music does not have any sad songs, Honey Singh’s music can appeal even to people who don’t understand Hindi, let alone Punjabi. I volunteered for conversation class, helped students with various subjects like English, Geography, History. My friend and I also conducted a dance and creative writing workshop for the students. The enthusiasm that they showed for dance class would half during creative writing, but it was a brilliant experience nevertheless. I’ve learned more from their lifestyle, their dedication, their simplicity than I probably even aimed to have taught them.
The school building is constructed largely using a combination of mud and clay. This helps in temperature regulation within the rooms/spaces. During winter even when the external temperature drops to -40 it would be 10 inside the room. The campus is oriented to face southwards, allowing it to make optimum use of the sunlight it receives. Further capitalising on the natural sunlight, the school has a separate room with glass walls where they dry all their vegetables for the winter.
Efficient energy solutions to local problems
Steering clear of conventional heating sources, the school has installed a solar panel that heats water for bathing, which is why baths are a rarity in the winter because the sunshine is not strong enough to warm water for everyone! Another ingenious method of using sunlight can be seen in the kitchen. A concave mirror placed at an angle receives sunlight, which is directed to a mirror that converges it and helps in heating. Large containers of water are placed here for slow and continuous heating.
For cooking, the campus uses biogas. On days when sunlight cannot be depended on for electricity, they have a back up of solar batteries which are charged when sunshine is abundant. The conserved electricity is used on dull, cloudy days.
The students learn to handle the whole machinery and they are solely responsible for remembering to switch on the battery, diagnose problems, if any, and attempt to set them right.
Turning from water woes to water wise
As a volunteer most of these ‘habits’ came as a shock to me, but what required the biggest ‘adjustment’ was the bathroom. SECMOL did not have normal Western-style or even Indian-style toilets. They have compost-toilets. Since there is a shortage of water in Ladakh, despite its proximity to the Indus, these toilets (also called ry toilets) are ideal for water conservation since they do not make any use of water. The waste is collected in a chamber below and is allowed to decompose for over a year, turning the waste into rich, fertile compost. This is then used in the little farm that SECMOL cultivates.
The school grows its own vegetables like cabbage and carrots.They also have apple and apricot trees growing around the campus. Whatever remains of the harvest after consumption by the residents of the school is also sold in the local markets. In order to teach them the importance of Ladakhi culture and practices, the students are involved in making a number of traditional dishes like marmalade using apricots. Don’t forget to get yourself a pot of SECMOL apricot marmalade when you visit the children!
Learning what matters
A day in the life of a SECMOL student is designed to be as rich as possible, with the curriculum having a mix of academics and life skills. On a regular school day, children attend one and a half hours of conversation class where they try to learn a language other than Ladakhi, one a half hours of computer class, 1 hour of project/activity where a student studies a topic of his/her choosing, and 1 hour each of Ladakh history and other subjects post lunch. Every child has chores assigned to him/her on a bi-monthly basis. The chores range from tending to the school’s resident cows and assisting in the kitchen to tending the school’s farm and charging the solar batteries. Students also occupy elected positions like Secretary and President and participate in ensuring the smooth running of the campus.
On a bi-monthly basis, students present status reports on how they handed their responsibilities, the challenges they faced, and identify areas that their successors could take up. Students similarly present their learnings in computer skills, language, history, etc. The idea is that each child’s presentation should have enough material to teach another who does not know anything about that topic. This makes learning democratic and student centred.
In a nutshell, the students of SECMOL are exposed to overall and complete learning. Not only are they focusing on their academic studies, they are also being groomed to become responsible citizens capable of handling the real world, and more importantly to have innovative solutions and ideas for situations around them.
The importance of their culture is also being instilled in them in the form of traditional dances, singing traditional songs after dinner everyday, and eating traditional cuisine like thukpa. Ask these students whether they want to get out of Ladakh, and most will say no, because they want to stay in their homeland and help develop it.
I think that is a beautiful vision to give the youth of today, isn’t it?
Images by the author.
The Social Innovation Sandbox is a series chronicling novel solutions across the country that are seeking to transform life quality for the millions at the base of the pyramid in India.
The series is supported by the Deshpande Foundation India that is based out of Hubli and is building a nurturing ecosystem for entrepreneurship, innovation, and local, grassroots efforts so that young people can transform this growing country.