The Real Phunsuk Wangdu Of ‘3 Idiots’ Tells His Own Story

Posted by Josh Talks in Education, Entrepreneurship, Sci-Tech
November 28, 2016

‘Phunsuk Wangdu’ is back in the news. Nearly a decade after the wildly successful movie “3 Idiots”, the world at large has finally discovered that the character was inspired by a real person. No thanks to Aamir Khan and the film crew.

Credit goes to the weight of Sonam Wangchuk’s own achievements – one serious invention in particular that fetched him the prestigious Rolex Award for Innovation, catapulting him into the national spotlight.

Talking at LEAP, a Josh Talks conference, Wangchuk shared the story of this invention, and by association, his journey of setting up a radical school in Ladakh, the only one of its kind anywhere in the country.

His school, SECMOL, is his greatest achievement. Over there, the teaching method does not rely on textbooks. Students learn by doing and through real-life experience. They study, play, and innovate. Their school runs exclusively on solar energy; it is constructed sustainably and it creates solutions to local (and global) environmental concerns.

The inspiration for SECMOL came more than 20 years back, when Wangchuk discovered that the Indian education system was failing miserably in the remote region of Ladakh. Children there could neither relate to the language of education nor the content of textbooks. The pass percentage in Class X stood at a dismal 5%. Altogether it was a hopeless scenario. It had always been that way and would continue to be, until he decided to change everything.

When he established his school, he first opened the doors to students who had been failed by our regular education system. That was the admission criteria. What can be done with 40 such so-called ‘failures’? More than anyone imagined, as it turns out.

To start with, Wangchuk made learning real. For students here, the textbook extends to the world around them. They learn science theories by application, fermentation by producing and preserving their own jam, economics by participating in trade, geography by traveling the country, and politics by forming their own government every two months.

No wonder, they are suddenly able to comprehend their textbooks, clear exams, and then go beyond. The many achievements of a formerly failed collective include India’s first National Women’s Ice Hockey Team, an entrepreneur who started India’s first all-woman travel company, a renowned film-maker, and a young education minister (who himself was also an exam failure). And of course, Ice Stupas – that invention that has now gathered the Rolex Award for Innovation.

During this talk, Wangchuk explains the ingenuity of the Ice Stupas, which freeze and store water in a conical shape during winters, and melt gradually during summers, supplying water to farmers.

The invention also paves the way for processes that can help avert flooding disasters in the mountains and create new glaciers for the first time since the last ice age. The Swiss Government has now come calling for ice stupas in a rare example of technology transfer from India to the West.

And no, Sonam Wangchuk is not awaiting acknowledgement from Aamir Khan. He has long since discarded that hope and moved on. For the first time, though, he officially set the record straight at LEAP. Here’s his answer to the Phunsuk Wangdu connection.

For him, the case rests. Wangdu is done and dusted with “3 Idiots”. The Wangchuk story, however, is racing ahead towards a future of fascinating possibilities.