pread across a vast mountainous terrain measuring 60,000 sq. feet, Ladakh houses 963 schools, 93% of which are rural, and majority remain isolated for six months in a year. This, in addition to lack of communication, training, exposure and sheer remoteness of the terrain, makes education in rural Ladakh a struggle. Stung by these facts, avid trekker Sujata Sahu took it upon herself to support, strengthen and upgrade the existing schools in an effort to help them, and founded the 17000 ft Foundation.
A solo trek by Sahu, where she stayed at the villages, taught at the schools and observed their life close hand was the turning point for her, and her husband, who say, that though Ladakh as a region receives support, most of it is concentrated to the more accessible areas around Leh.
"Ladakh is dotted with tiny sparsely populated villages, and even smaller schools. Though these schools have been setup by the Government and function to the best of their abilities, they suffer from lack of infrastructure, inadequate training, and lack of motivation. The desperate need of the villagers to provide quality education to their children often leads to an exodus of children or families to far away Leh, estranging them from their families, culture, and villages," she says.
"The focus of 17000 ft is the ignored and remote villages of Ladakh, in an attempt to spread and equalize the support going to these schools," she adds.
Named after the highest point that Sahu crossed to reach the remotest beneficiaries, the organisation, in order to reach out to remotest of areas in the region, has broken down its projects into modules of infrastructure upgrade, teacher training, resource improvement and focus and exposure through volunteer workshops.
||The focus of 17000 ft is the ignored and remote villages of Ladakh, in an attempt to spread and equalize the support going to these schools
— Sujata Sahu
"Technology is a large enabler for 17000 ft, and is used not only for data collection, assimilation and assessment, but also to garner support. Our software, MapMySchool has all the schools of Leh District geo-mapped on a map of Ladakh. This empowers trekkers and remote travellers with the knowledge of schools on their route, giving them an opportunity to contribute towards the needs of that school even while on vacation," she explains.
By successful mapping and assessment of each of the 370 schools of Leh district, libraries with age appropriate books in 100 schools, designing and providing classroom furniture for seven schools and training facilities in Library Management System to all schools in collaboration with District Institute of Education and Trainings, 17,000 has till now benefited about 8000 children. But Sahu shares that all these feats have come along with their share of stumbles.
"Though the terrain is harsh and the temperatures sometimes throw our planning out of gear, we have been able to achieve most of our targets so far. Our biggest challenge, however, has been in finding, hiring and training educated local youth to continue our education programs at the remote villages, a chicken and egg problem that we are facing. Our other larger issue is bringing outside attention to these remote villages in order to garner funding and support for our programs. With Ladakh having almost no corporate presence and outsiders having very limited knowledge of the area and its difficulties, our biggest focus today is creating awareness," she says.
With an audacious aim of mapping all 963 schools, setting up 500 active libraries, and bringing digital classrooms to 50 schools in the coming years, Sahu recalls the journey of the organisation – "Though there are roads to most of these villages today, the distance, altitudes and remoteness leave most of them ignored. Many still do not have roads connecting them and the only way to reach them is by trekking. We have visited many schools, some of which are a two day trek and others a 4-5 hour trek from the nearest road head. One of the remotest village schools that we worked in is a village called Lingshed, in the remote Zanskar region. Frozen and disconnected from the rest of Ladakh for about 6 months of a year, there is a school here that is residential and has about 110 children. 17000 ft has been there twice in two years," she says.
She further elaborates that in the first year, they provided clothing, supply of stationery, sports equipment, indoor games, a library; a total weight of about 1 ton that was carried on horseback. "The second year, we equipped the entire school with colourful, sturdy classroom furniture, all of which was designed in house, manufactured in Delhi, shipped to Leh and carried on 25 horses and mules to Lingshed, a weight of about 1.25 tonnes," she concludes.