By Anupama Pain:
On August 30, 2016, while the rest of the country was experiencing its customary monsoon, the Sikkim bureaucracy was worried. They awaited the arrival of a delegation of scientists, engineers and officials from various government departments, as well as a shy, but gritty team of four from a Ladakhi non-profit. This delegation was equipped for and required to avert an impending disaster – the flooding of the South Lhonak Lake…
Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian (Surya from here on) from the Ladakhi sub-team, at 26, was perhaps one of the youngest amidst the stalwarts who had gathered to solve the crisis. Born and brought up in Chennai to a middle-class family, Surya was schooled in the neighbourhood Kendriya Vidyalaya, before completing an integrated post graduation in Mathematics from NISER, Odisha, by 2015. Bright, ambitious and thoughtful, Surya had always been interested in giving back to society and in his final year, began volunteering his time and energy towards the education of underprivileged children, through his college’s student initiative, Zariya.
Having enjoyed working with them, Surya decided to continue with his volunteering even after his coursework was complete. Following a brief stint in the education sector, he applied to the India Fellow program, a year-long commune-run, fellowship programme that trains the youth to become better leaders of tomorrow.
Surya joined the India Fellow team as as an apprentice to Sonam Wangchuk – the dynamic and brilliant Ladakhi leader (the inspiration to Aamir Khan’s iconic character in “3 Idiots”), working towards educating the community and promoting environmental sustainability – and the experience was one that changed his life forever.
Everything Surya had learnt as a student was put to test like never before. Intensive, exciting and challenging, the programme broadened his capabilities and talents, pushing him to be the best version of himself to help those around him.
Under the mentorship of Wangchuk, Surya had the opportunity to assist with the Alternative Mountain University project, which aimed to set up an institution to conduct environmental research and development, as well as offer higher education to youth living in far-flung communities. Surya was also part of the Ice Stupa Artificial Glacier pilot project, aimed at solving the problem of water crisis in the Ladakh valley during the early summer, which formed the beginnings of an exciting journey with glaciology.
From his simple beginnings at his Chennai home, Surya was suddenly at the cusp of one of the most crucial and iconic research projects in the world, attempting to find a solution to the threat of global warming. As word spread about the research, Surya and his team members found themselves being discussed in academic circles, an experience that many 26-year-olds can only dream of.
This exciting and enviable journey that Surya became part of, did not end even after the successful completion of his fellowship. His journey with the Himalayan hills still continues. The fellowship equipped him with the skill and expertise that makes him one of the handful of people who understand climate control in the hills closely, today. It was the reason behind his being part of the team that was dispatched for disaster management during the flooding of the South Lhonak Lake in Sikkim in 2016, a team that was destined to save thousands of lives.
As we speak, the Lhonak is flowing under the dangerous mark and the Alternative Himalayan University dream is slowly turning into a reality. As for Surya, he is still only 27 with a world of possibilities. Currently, he is preparing himself for another journey to intern for eight months with some of the brightest minds in the world of Glaciology in Switzerland – to delve deeper into the subject as well as contribute there through what he has done in Ladakh. And to anyone who can see what he’s managed to do at this young age, they’d agree that this is no small feat.
“Unlike us, long ago the people of Ladakh lived in an alternate reality. They lived like ants among huge mounds of mud. Having a currency did not make sense to them, as the most important resource at the time was humans themselves. So they treasured the people they lived with and worked together, exchanging food and labour to make this great desert hospitable.
Things changed though when the army and eventually the tourists showcased our lifestyle and made all the pent up technologies of civilisation accessible to them. Many abandoned their communities to acquire the comfort and luxuries these products promised and thus Ladakhi lost their most precious resource in the name of development. Once, entire villages used to build houses and harvest crops for each other, but now Nepali workers are paid to do the same.
If I was born in Ladakh at such a time, I would have definitely left it too. But here I am with the people left behind to learn about their simple awareness. Back home I used to pay for bottled water that dried wells and destroyed marine habitat. I used to ride my bike all the way just to get a box of matches. The plastic bags and bottles I used, probably filled a couple of landfills. So before Ladakh, working for projects that promoted renewable energy and sustainable development felt just like a predicament. But living in Ladakh has brought my life in line with my work.”
The application for the 2018 cohort of India Fellow is open till 28th February 2018. Join a commune of changemakers and discover your social leadership potential. Apply today at www.indiafellow.org!