When the ground is covered by a thick blanket of snow and more of it falls incessantly, all you would want to do is stay safe indoors and perhaps, curl up with a book and a piping hot cup of coffee. However, there are innumerable youngsters who, braving all odds, go out into the open and find their way to schools — across snowy, mountainous terrain, boulders, and harsh weather, to quench their thirst for knowledge and heighten their chances of quality education. And it is to provide an impetus to such students that Sujata Sahu and her husband Sandeep founded 17,000 ft Foundation, an NGO that maps schools in Ladakh, in a bid to try and improve the quality of education there.
“Everyone knows Kargil only because of the infamous war; no one has the faintest idea about what exactly is happening here. There are thousands of enthusiastic children who fervently want to go to school and make it big in life. But the difficulties they experience are unimaginable,” elaborates Sujata. So, what led to founding 17,000 ft Foundation? Her trigger to start the NGO was a trek that she undertook to Ladakh in 2010. She trekked to Leh, stayed in a house in a tiny village that was completely cut off from the rest of the town, and was awestruck to see children’s hunger for education.
She explains, “I visited two schools there. The first, a primary school, Sku-Kaya, had just five children and two teachers. It had two rooms which were being re-built. One teacher stayed in the village, while the other had gone to Leh to get uniforms and mid-day meal supplies for the kids. The second school had eight children and three teachers, two of whom I met — they were walking back to Leh for textbooks and uniforms. Though it was July, the temperature at those altitudes was cold, but it didn’t deter children from going to school. One of them even brought his barely two-year-old brother along. These instances became my inspiration to drop everything and help these amazing people.”
The decision to leave the school she had been working in, Sujata explains, was possibly the hardest she had to make, primarily because she was planning to take on a seemingly herculean task, in possibly one of the world’s toughest terrains. She had no inkling about where she would get the funds from and how much of an impact she alone could make. There was also no precedence to what she wanted to attempt, nothing that she could learn from. When they started off, the team’s biggest challenge was encouraging donors to focus on Ladakh’s remote regions. While corporates were sympathetic to the cause, the remoteness of the project sites deterred them from extending support, which put Ladakh at a disadvantage.
So, what was the immediate solution? “To counter this, we encouraged employees to spend their vacation in Ladakh with us, which generated awareness about our projects and gave them the confidence to support our programmes,” she explains.
One of the other challenges included being on the road for two to three weeks a month without connectivity. Travelling in winter was arduous. With temperatures dipping to negative 25°C, packing snow chains, clearing snow paths and carrying stoves to warm up the fuel tanks was no mean feat. Roadblocks, landslides, broken bridges and snowed-in villages were just some of the problems they had to face.
Now, being stuck in a village due to unexpected problems has become a part of the job. This is no different from how Ladakhis have lived, for generations, and has now become part of the culture of 17000 ft. “It is little wonder that most of our team is composed of young Ladakhis — they are from the same villages that they are trying to improve, and draw inspiration from the hardships they see in the villages that they regularly travel to,” adds Sujata.
And the team’s efforts have reaped rich dividends. “Today, we have set up libraries in 230 schools across Leh and Kargil, trained over 1,500 teachers in different methodologies, conducted over 500 reading workshops and improved infrastructure in 134 schools. In our biggest programme yet, the DigiLab, we solarised 105 schools and set up fully furnished digital labs with tablets, servers, a TV, and digital content in each of the schools. Our programmes have now been adopted by the local administration and work is being carried out to make it sustainable,” reels off Sujata, the excitement in her voice unmistakeable.
Sujata reminisces about the first time they went to Kargil and set up their first library in Lattoo, a village, a few kilometres off the Pakistan border. “Many families had been separated during the Kargil war, and have experienced trauma, despite which they are dedicated towards a bright future for their children. On our visit, we were surprised to find the entire village waiting for us,” she recalls. “They were extremely grateful that we had adopted their school, and promised to utilise the library to the fullest. But what touched us the most was their simple pleasure at seeing us, non-Kargilis, come all the way from our homes, to visit their village, and their eagerness to convey to the rest of the country that they were as Indian as the rest of us. It is unfortunate that most of us relate to Kargil only as a place of war, while the reality is that it is an extremely beautiful and peaceful region, with people who value education.”
“Today, we are working to make our adopted schools models for the local administration to adopt. Someday, we may replicate our solution in other remote, Himalayan mountain states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and others,” signs off Sujata, on a hopeful note.