Primary School Malikbar, Kargil, Jammu & Kashmir with 2 teachers and 14 students. (Photograph: 17000 ft Foundation)

Daan Utsav: Scaling New Heights, Literally!

Daan Utsav celebrates acts of giving, from October 2 to October 8. BloombergQuint brings you on-ground stories of change, from social sector leaders shaping them.

The 17000 ft Foundation is entering a new chapter in its journey as we launch an ambitious corporate social responsibility partnership with our corporate partner Axis Bank to impact 104 remote government schools in the Ladakh region.

When the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley launched the project last week in Delhi, the conversation was all about the most challenging terrain in Jammu & Kashmir. Not just the accessible parts of Ladakh where visible tourism has reached, but the remote, inaccessible and far flung regions of the two districts of Leh and Kargil that are the most in need of attention.

Just five years ago, as a young non-profit startup with an audacious mandate to spark development in the remote region of Ladakh, we were met with disbelief and more than a fair share of scepticism from potential sponsors and non-profit collaborators alike. The announcement of this partnership with one of India’s largest private sector companies shows just how far we have come in our journey.

The Cause

The attention that Ladakh gets as an exotic tourism destination that is popular across the world for its spectacular beauty and the mysticism of an ancient civilisation, is limited to the accessible and visible parts of the district. This leaves a vast majority of the region untouched and isolated.

The high altitude cold desert is home to hundreds of tiny, sparsely populated hamlets dotting the harsh mountain terrain, each at altitudes upwards of 9,000 feet and with temperatures dipping way below zero. A majority of these villages remain isolated from the rest of the world for six months every year due to harsh winters, and suffer from poor infrastructure, limited resources and a complete lack of exposure.

The vastness of the region, combined with the number of sparsely populated settlements, has necessitated the presence of over 900 tiny government schools to each of the hamlets, with an average school strength of just 25 students.

Over 93 percent of these schools are remote, suffer from poor infrastructure, lack of exposure and struggle to cope with rising aspirations and a demanding education system, leading to dismal results, high dropout rates, a mass exodus to cities, and young adults ill-equipped to face the future.

Tourism is the main source of income for the people in Ladakh, however, its seasonal nature and the lack of infrastructure to support it restricts the benefits of this industry to just a handful of hamlets, leaving the majority untouched.

The people of these hamlets have learned to live in harmony with nature and within their close-knit communities. With the local administration trying hard to fulfill the needs of the people, there is an urgent need to stem the exodus to cities, and take support to where it is needed the most.

(Photograph: 17000 ft Foundation)
(Photograph: 17000 ft Foundation)

From Passion To Vision

Our first year was a struggle. With little reliable information about these villages and with only a handful of efforts by other groups that focused on the remote villages, we knew that we had to come up with solutions that would look past the obvious difficulties of the tough terrain and lack of infrastructure. Finding solutions that would work across the region would mean extensive travel, implementation that came at a high cost, and uncertainties arising from the environment.

Our Eureka moment came when we found a software released by the Akshara Foundation which connected all schools within Karnataka on a public platform and encouraged the ordinary citizen to contribute with information and issues relating to its schools.

The combination of technology and collaboration was a powerful idea that struck us immediately. We realised that our primary problem, the terrain, was now, in fact, the single largest strength of the region. It the main reason people from across the world visited this region in large numbers. If we could use technology and put these ignored villages back on the map, they could then encourage more people to visit and get involved in the development of these villages.

While geography was now no longer a problem, a lack of awareness and the absence of any demonstrated replicable, scalable solution that could fit the region as a whole, was.

Sparking Development

Our model now became one of generating awareness, building replicable solutions and facilitating interactions with the outside world to spark development.

1. Generating Awareness: We built our technology platform MapMySchool to help put the Ladakh schools back on the map. MapMySchool is now an online tool that helps create awareness about these villages and schools, and also forms the basis of our interventions. Five years ago, there was little information available about these schools. Finding and geo-mapping them was not easy, with the weather and terrain often playing truant. It took us over three months to complete this job. Today, each of the 990 schools of Ladakh has been geo-mapped with the most relevant and up-to-date information.

2. Implementing Scalable Solutions: We adopted our first 100 schools from across the remotest of villages, demonstrating scale, feasibility, and replicability. Today, we have setup libraries in 220 schools across the two districts of Leh and Kargil, trained over a thousand teachers in different methodologies, conducted over 500 reading workshops and improved infrastructure in 134 schools.

Our programs have now been adopted by the local administration and all work is carried out in collaboration with them, making it sustainable.

3. Driving Exposure To Remote Villages: We realised that the work could only sustain itself if we opened other avenues of exposure and connect to the outside world. We actively promoted the cause of remote villages among corporate entities by encouraging them to not just contribute, but also visit and spend the time to understand their needs. Our biggest corporate project had 50 employees visiting 104 remote villages.

Not just this, our program Voluntourist@17000ft enables even individuals and families to contribute to our program by travelling to these remote villages and volunteering.

The impact on the remote community is matched equally by the impact on the volunteer who goes back humbled and wiser, and becomes a member of the extended family of brand ambassadors who advocate the cause of remote villages of Ladakh.

We have sent over 340 volunteers to remote villages that have otherwise never had any visitors. Over 25 percent of these volunteers have come back multiple times, and many have helped by fundraising, advocating and being the brand ambassadors of 17000 ft.

The middle school in Hunderman Brok, Kargil, Jammu & Kashmir, with 19 students. (Photograph: 17000 ft Foundation)   
The middle school in Hunderman Brok, Kargil, Jammu & Kashmir, with 19 students. (Photograph: 17000 ft Foundation)  

Challenges

Living and working in such high altitudes comes with its own set of challenges. Our team is on the road for 2-3 weeks of the month, without connectivity. Dependent on local villages and the limited availability there, they often have to carry their stoves, tents, sleeping bags, and food. Travelling in winter is not easy.

With temperatures dipping to negative 25 degrees, 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.

Long multi-hour travel on treacherous mountain roads is nothing compared to the high altitude treks that they have to undertake to reach their schools. Being stuck in a village due to unexpected problems is something that is taken as a part of the job.

This, however, is no different than how the people of Ladakh have lived themselves for generations, and is therefore, very much a part of the culture of 17000 ft. It is no wonder that most of our team is comprised of young Ladakhis themselves. Most of them are from the very villages that they are trying to improve, and each of them draws inspiration from the hardships that they see in the villages that they regularly travel to.

Sujata Sahu is the founder of the 17000 ft Foundation.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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