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Carrying out Himalayan task

17000 ft Foundation is transforming government schools in Ladakh with sustainable and unique initiatives, ensuring that children everywhere are given access to better education irrespective of the remoteness of their location.

Published on December 21, 2020 at 2:44 am

Updated on March 20, 2021 at 06:50 am

DigiLab in Sakti Middle School.

It is a cold breezy morning in November with the sun shining bright and temperatures dipping to -25 degree C. The children are getting ready to trek to school. Even children as young as 5 years old have to trudge along a rocky and muddy track filled with pebbles of all sizes and shapes, at an average altitude of 12,000ft and upwards to reach their school, which is at least 20 to 40 minutes away. But this daily grind does not stop the local villagers from harbouring the dream of educating their children. The kids, in turn, are equally enthusiastic and sincere about learning new things at the nearby government school and do not miss school even for a day. The school has few rooms, old worn-out carpets, no desks or benches to sit on during the cold harsh weather, no playground, no electricity, no TV and no Internet. We are in Ladakh where amazing views, harsh weather conditions (winter temperatures go down to -50 degree C at times) and minimal infrastructure go hand in hand.

Ladakh is a cold desert with over 700 small hamlets spread across 60,000 sq. km. of harsh mountain terrain. With a population density of just 4 people to a square km, most of Ladakh has remained isolated from development. Each settlement has a small government school, with average school strength of just 25 students, which is struggling to provide quality education to its children. Today, the most desired schools are private establishments that are concentrated in the cities of Leh and Kargil, creating a slow and inexorable ‘rural flight’ of very young children to faraway cities, away from their parents in pursuit of their dreams.

Children at a school in Ladakh.

17000 ft Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation, was established in 2012 to strengthen communities, generate awareness and create opportunities for development and improve the education system, thereby arresting the exodus of very young children to the cities. It is currently working with over 250 remote, neglected and ignored hamlets of Ladakh across its two districts, Leh and Kargil. Over the past seven years, 17000 ft Foundation has transformed the government schools in the region with sustainable and unique initiatives, ensuring that children everywhere are given access to better education irrespective of the remoteness of their location.

Most schools in Ladakh have the bare minimum infrastructure and even with ample open space to play, lack play equipment for its children. With the region being so remote and inaccessible, procuring and transporting playground equipment and classroom furniture becomes an expensive and difficult proposition, leaving most children sitting on cold floors and with limited options for playtime.

17000 ft Foundation works on infrastructure improvement at the government schools to create child-friendly and happy learning spaces for children. It has set up outdoor playgrounds and provided colourful, age-appropriate classroom furniture in over 130 remote government schools, many of which had to be carried on horseback or by the villagers themselves to reach the last mile. It has also transformed these schools with paint and wall-to-wall carpeting.

Colourful furniture in pre-primary classes at Temisgam Middle School.

To improve reading and generate exposure, 17000 ft Foundation has set up libraries in 230 schools. Each library is carpeted, painted and equipped with a library rack with 300-500 books across languages and genres. The children enjoy reading these books and learning about the world beyond their small village. Additionally, as there were no storybooks in the local language, 17000 ft Foundation translated and published 38 titles from English into Bhoti and distributed them to over 300 schools. In 2018, for the benefit of children and youth, a free centrally heated public library named ‘The Next Chapter’ was set up in Leh.

One more giant step towards providing equal learning opportunities to the children of Ladakh was taken when 17000 ft Foundation installed solar-powered digital classrooms called “DigiLab” in 120 remote schools. The “DigiLab” is a fully integrated programme that brings together all required components to enable customised and personalised digital learning that is self-reliant and works even in areas without electricity or connectivity, yet syncs to the cloud through a last-mile connectivity App.

Students in the library at Hanu Khas Khas village school.

17000 ft Foundation has also been conducting regular capacity-building workshops for headmasters and teachers to improve students’ core learning outcomes. Over the years, more than 1,500 headmasters and teachers have been trained.

With a focus on driving attention to these ignored hamlets and generating a sense of pride in its people, 17000 ft Foundation runs structured volunteerism and donation programmes that encourage outsiders to volunteer and contribute to the development of the villages, with the added advantage of driving additional income to the remote villages through home-stay programmes.

DigiLab in Ayu Saboo village school.

Implementing and monitoring programmes across such a harsh wide terrain is nothing less than a herculean task. 17000 ft Foundation has a completely local team of Ladakhis from Leh and Kargil who work throughout the year, including the harsh winter months.

Working in such high altitudes has its own set of challenges. The team is on the road, visiting schools for the most part of the month and without connectivity. They often have to carry their tents, sleeping bags and even groceries. Travelling in winter is not easy as packing snow chains, clearing snow paths and carrying stoves to warm up the fuel tanks is no mean feat. Roadblocks, landslides, blasting, broken bridges, snowed-in villages are just some of the problems they face regularly. Long multi-hour travel on treacherous mountain roads and the high altitude treks that the team has to undertake to reach the schools is a daily routine. Being stuck in a village due to unexpected problems is something that is part of the job. But at the end of the day, the smiling kids in the schools they visit act as the energy booster and encourage them to continue doing what they do.

The impact is clearly visible on the ground with the vision of the Foundation – a world where geography and distances offer no barrier to opportunity and growth – being not far from reality. For her work, Sujata Sahu, the founder, was awarded the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2015 – India’s highest civilian award for recognising the achievements and contributions of women – by the President of India.

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