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This Woman Quit Her Job to Help Sonam Wangchuk Transform Education in Ladakh!

"She gave up her illustrious career to help Ladakh. What makes all this more touching is that she is offering her services selflessly and pro-bono," says Sonam Wangchuk about Gitanjali, who is also a serial entrepreneur, Russian Bolshoi ballet dancer and a certified karate black belt. #Respect #RealLifeHeroine

This Woman Quit Her Job to Help Sonam Wangchuk Transform Education in Ladakh!

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of Ladakh’s first ever university.

However, experts believe that there is still a very long way to go before these institutions meet the needs of the local populace.

Organic, natural, and adulteration-free—this honey produced by marginal farmers and beekeepers, comes all the way from the mountains of Kashmir. 

Responding to these local concerns, Sonam Wangchuk, the legendary social activist and entrepreneur, has set up a university in Phyang village of Ladakh called the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh (HIAL).

Partnering him in this endeavour as HIAL’s Co-founder-CEO is the remarkable Ms Gitanjali JB, a serial entrepreneur, educationist, Odissi and Russian Bolshoi ballet dancer and a certified karate black belt.

“Two years ago, upon hearing about the HIAL alternative education initiative in Ladakh and the prospect of its transformational impact on higher education in India, she gave up her corporate career and moved to Ladakh to help expedite the setting up of the Himalayan Institute of Alternatives (HIAL). What makes all this more touching is that she is offering her services pro-bono,” says Sonam Wangchuk, speaking to The Better India.

Born into a Punjabi Jain business family in Balasore, Odisha, 46-year-old Gitanjali’s grandfather had migrated from Lahore during Partition. It was her mother, a progressive homemaker, who sowed the seeds of learning and independence.

“My parents gave me the two best gifts a child can get—trust and freedom”, she begins.

A physics graduate, she completed her MBA from Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. What followed was a six-year corporate career working in a consulting company and leading the marketing division for a Copenhagen-based Indian multinational.

Following her stint in Denmark, she went on a 15-year long entrepreneurial spree, during which she established an engineering firm (Pushan Projects), a publishing house (Chennai-based Helios Books) and acquired a hospital (Puducherry-based AUM Hospitals).

Gitanjali JB (Source: Facebook)
Gitanjali JB

First tryst with the education sector

However, it was a short stint (2015) heading the Cambridge School in Chennai, which truly opened up Gitanjali to the education sector.

Back then, it was a school which had children until Class VIII, but planned to scale up their operations to adopt the IB programme for students in Class XI and XII.

In Gitanjali, the school management found a woman who was both a CEO and an educationist; that one year, she would spend Monday to Friday running the school, while on the weekends she would return to Puducherry and oversee operations at the hospital.

“Within a week of my joining, the maths and physics teachers had left, and they needed a short-term replacement. The school requested me to step in, and I accepted. Although I had never taught in a classroom, what helped me during my time there was being a life-long learner and a very engaged mother with my son, Aryan. Within a month, I found genuine happiness in teaching the students, and they, in turn, began loving the subjects,” she says.

One of her core principles in life is constant learning and reinventing oneself at all times.

“I found in myself a researcher, academician and someone who loved enterprise. Unfortunately, until my stint at Cambridge School, there was no avenue for me to combine all these passions in one career,” adds Gitanjali.

During her time there, she was working to obtain an IBDP affiliation for the school and relocate to a bigger campus in the city, and also attended several workshops that introduced her to the best education practices prevalent in the country. In addition to all this, she was already exposed to the educational practices and policies of the prestigious Doon School where her son, Aryan, is a student.

She wasn’t too impressed though, and believed that a lot more could be done in teaching indigenous knowledge, raising student-teacher engagement and learning by physically doing something.

After her contract with Cambridge School came to a close, she wanted to establish a school which would inculcate these elements, but mitigating circumstances came in the way.

GItanjali in a traditional Ladakhi dress.
Gitanjali in a traditional Ladakhi dress.

Multifaceted, interdisciplinary

Ever since she was a child, Gitanjali had varied interests that went much beyond the cursory. However, she felt pin-holed throughout her life.

“I found a lot of subjects, disciplines, art forms and sports fascinating, but this wasn’t considered normal. I was heading towards a full-blown identity crisis till three events changed everything for me,” she recalls.

In college, a professor told Gitanjali that someone with her varied interests and intellectual capacity would make for an entrepreneur and CEO, where she could see the big picture and take other people along.

The second event was a ballet performance she attended in Copenhagen watching a conductor managing 30 people in an orchestra and 50 dancers on stage. She noticed that the conductor wasn’t as skilled in playing an instrument or dancing compared to the performers on stage, but could take everyone along and create a symphony out of it.

Gitanjali is also a trained Russian Bolshoi ballet dancer.
Gitanjali is also a trained Russian Bolshoi ballet dancer, which she learnt in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Finally, it was her introduction to Sri Aurobindo, the 20th-century Indian philosopher, at the age of 16 and his principles of Integral Growth and Education, which helped her not only come to terms with her multifaceted personality but celebrate her diverse interests.

“I have always believed that we should develop all sides of our personality and pick up different skills in life. Leonardo da Vinci could draw the Vitruvian Man because he was trained as an artist, mathematician, botanist and a philosopher. It’s at the cross-section of disciplines where great ideas are born. Reality is composite and interdisciplinary,” argues Gitanjali.

HIAL & Beyond

It was a WhatsApp message in February 2017, which alerted Gitanjali to Sonam Wangchuk’s plans of starting HIAL.

By May, she had already begun raising funds for it. So far, HIAL has raised about Rs 10 crore, which has taken care of construction costs for this year and last year. The institute has another Rs 10 crore of funding in the pipeline.

“HIAL is about learning by doing, where students set up their own enterprises. There is an entrepreneurial aspect which comes out, but at the same time, it’s backed by a conceptual understanding of a business plan and industry. Finally, it’s all set within a particular geographic and cultural context along with all the awareness to become a responsible and socially conscious entrepreneur,” she says.

Standing alongside the VC of Kashmir University Talat Ahmad, Sonam Wangchuk and the first cohort of fellows.
Standing with the VC of Kashmir University Talat Ahmad, Sonam Wangchuk and the first cohort of HILLs fellows.

In HIAL, as per the curriculum design, Gitanjali has taken up all the issues that the ecosystem in Ladakh faces alongside concerns like the migration of young people due to lack of opportunities.

For her, academia, research and entrepreneurship have come together here.

“In 2017, when I met Sonam Wangchuk in Mumbai, HIAL was at the inception stage. The crowdfunding process had begun a few months earlier. So, in May 2017, I relocated to Ladakh, becoming the first person after Sonam to join the initiative,” she recalls.

Right from registering the land, raising funds, setting up the 11-month HILLs (Himalayan Institute of Live Learnings) Fellowship (which seeks to empower the youth from mountain communities, particularly from the Hindu Kush-Himalayan regions) and designing the curriculum, Gitanjali has partnered Sonam Wangchuk.

Also Read: Organic & Scrumptious: Why Ladakh is Home to The World’s Sweetest Apricots!

There are four aspects to HIAL’s unique curriculum:

1) Contextual learning: This essentially looks at understanding the basic ecology of a mountainous cold desert-like Ladakh and applying key lessons in coming up with local solutions to real-life problems like building eco-responsive homes that stay +20 degrees Celsius in -20 degree Celsius temperatures or planting trees that help prevent flooding or landslides in these parts.

2) Entrepreneurship and experiential pedagogy: This is about identifying local issues, finding solutions and monetising it. An example is the module on responsible tourism, where questions like ‘how do you kick-start the rural economy by stopping urban migration from the villages of Leh district’ are addressed.

For example, HIAL has started farm stays in Phyang village. This is experiential pedagogy where students would be trained to run these farm stays, organise treks or build a traditional eco-friendly building and they would be learning while doing these real-life jobs. Only 30% of the classes are in a classroom, while the remaining time is spent in the field.

3) Reclaiming indigenous knowledge systems: “Words like sustainability did not exist in Ladakh’s traditional vocabulary because the people didn’t know how else to live. It was sustainable by design” says Gitanjali.

But, there are things that we can take from the past and blend it with the modern. One example is the traditional compost toilet where you do not waste water by flushing it, but instead, compost human waste, and that goes back into the field.

As this is not very comfortable for the average consumer, the students and faculty at HIAL are redesigning it on their campus to address this concern.

4) Interdisciplinary: Most modules are interdisciplinary. For instance, the fellowship started with the fellows planting a small forest of 600 square metres. Through this they understood the geology, hydrology, glaciology, botany and other aspects of Ladakh. Also they take care of the forest, thereby forming a relationship with the plants and developing empathy with the plant world.

This year, HIAL has taken on only ten students from Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. “Although it’s a post-graduate fellowship, we are an institution that values experience as much as educational qualification. While having a basic bachelor’s degree is an essential qualification, we have also taken those who don’t have a degree but have hands-on experience in tourism or afforestation, and they want to get better at it,” says Gitanjali.

Besides HIAL, she has also led the curriculum design and development for the Maharashtra International Educational Board (MIEB) in 2017 and is currently advising and helping Auroville start its own university.

In addition, Gitanjali also teaches karate to students at SECMOL, Sonam Wangchuk’s Alternative School, and has set up an initiative called Peaceful Warriors, where the objective is to make every girl in India a black belt.

Gitanjali and her 'Peaceful Warriors, including Sonam Wangchuk.
Gitanjali and her ‘Peaceful Warriors’, including Sonam Wangchuk.

Nonetheless, her real contribution in Ladakh lies in setting the foundations for HIAL. Bringing this radically different approach to higher education in such a place has positive implications that are beyond the immediate.

Mountainous regions like Ladakh are the epicentre of the battle against climate change. Solving problems associated with it, developing an eco-friendly consciousness, and empowering people from the region economically and responsibly are facets that can only help them in the long term.

Through HIAL, people like Gitanjali and Sonam Wangchuk have built the first building blocks for the region’s future. What more can one ask for!

(You can visit the HIAL website to know more.)

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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