In 1979, when Pink Floyd sang "We don't need no education", I thought they were speaking for me. Twenty-two years later, standing on a dusty campus in faraway Ladakh I realised that here were kids more unfortunate than me—who had probably not even heard the song—for whom the reality was starker.
Welcome to Ladakh—the largest district of the country, where the average pass percentage in the all-important matriculation exam in the 300-odd schools has oscillated between 0 and 5 per cent for the past 54 years. The winds of change have, however, begun sweeping this remote land forgotten by the triumphant forces of progress, thanks to the tireless efforts made by the Students' Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (secmol), an ngo trying to improve the lot of Ladakhi students.
Formed in 1988 by a small group of enthusiastic youth—who had themselves experienced the harrowing education system and had emerged from it—secmol was determined to change the fate of thousands of students being crushed by the burden of a dark future in the schools of Ladakh. Having had the good fortune to pursue their higher studies outside Ladakh, they'd attained the mental distance needed to figure out that when 95 per cent of the students were dubbed "failures", the fault probably lay not with the students but with the system.
It all began with free-of-cost coaching classes for the students, supplemented by vocational training for dropouts. But Sonam Wangchuk, secmol's driving force, soon realised that the malaise was deeper as only some were doing well. The need was to revamp the entire educational structure. Informal discussions, where youngsters exorcised their own bitter experiences in these schools, soon hit upon the most glaring anomaly: the abrupt change in the medium of instruction from one non-Ladakhi language (Urdu), till class eight, to another...