J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous quote `Not all who wander are lost’ is perfectly apt for Sujata, whose recreational solo trek to Ladakh led to uncovering a purpose to pursue.

It was while endeavouring across the remote landscape of Ladakh and experiencing life in villages, that the idea of 17000 ft Foundation took birth. When Ms. Sujata came back in 2010 from her solo trek to Ladakh, she brought with her the plight of natives who had been living in high altitude remote regions disconnected from the entire world. She witnessed the hardships that the people of Ladakh were facing for generations. Lack of basic facilities, education and healthcare compelled the natives to migrate, ending up with even lesser life choices and standard of living.

Ms. Sujata receiving the Nari Shakti Award 2015.

The moment she came home, she knew that she would return to Ladakh, but this time with a purpose. Founded by Sujata, Sandeep and Dawa, 17000 ft Foundation has its Head Office at Gurgaon with 2 field offices in Kargil and Leh. They have an eminent board of directors of 5 members and an energetic team who are mostly Ladakhis. A non-profit organisation, 17000 ft understands the aspirations of each child and breaks the barriers of geography to reach the last mile to educate every child devoid of education. Started in 2012, with about 100 villages, in the harshest terrain and rough weather, they took to aiding educational facilities of Government schools operating in Ladakh. The team reached remote places with no roads, shops or healthcare on foot and ensured successfully functioning schools that earlier lacked infrastructure, proper teaching resources for the English medium curriculum or electricity.

After closely studying the unfamiliar conditions of Ladakh, with some areas being cut from the entire civilization for six months due to harsh winter conditions, they came up with innovative solutions. The team mapped the meagre government schools in Ladakh. They arranged furniture, built playgrounds and libraries even in places where they had to carry the raw materials on foot. The activities are mostly funded by collaborations with corporates CSR funds and individual donors. Today, around 150 schools have vibrant playgrounds and more than 200 libraries across 220 villages in collaboration with stakeholders like Axis bank, ICICI Bank and Akshara Foundation (NGO), among others.

DigiLab – Digital Classroom Technology

They have also developed a digital classroom technology, called DigiLab, that enables the children to access digitized learning with the help of solar electricity, which is one of their finest achievements. Keeping in mind the unavailability of network coverage in most of the regions it works offline at the school, and syncs to a cloud-based system through the last mile connectivity App in the headmaster’s phone. During the headmaster’s monthly travel to the zonal office, the data gets transferred data for the administrators to assess and monitor performance. This creative technology along with professional teacher and student training programs and customized curriculum has restored the faith of the natives and has cut down out-migration to half.

Tourism has also emerged as a significant area. Thus, the team has launched their Flagship tourist programme called Voluntourist@17000ft. This programme encourages tourists to spend their time as educational volunteers in the villages, thus making it a holiday with a cause. The volunteers live in the homes of the natives to understand their lifestyle and culture and organize fun educational activities for the natives. It has successfully drawn more than 450 tourists to participate and provides for about 20% of their fund requirements.

Rohini with students of Gompa School Shachukul

17000 ft Foundation reaches its highest point, not due to the altitude, but when they see the sparkling eyes and smiling faces of the community who voluntarily contribute their efforts by varied means. The wholehearted involvement of the people is what keeps the team warm and grounded even at freezing heights. Sujata says that the willingness of each kid to study, their sincerity to come to school even in knee-high snow is what motivates the team each day. One of their biggest logistical achievements has been the installation of their DigiLab program in 100 schools (in collaboration with Axis Bank) in less than 40 days, each of which was inaugurated within 6 days of each other. After all, the best view comes after the hardest climb!

Apart from the difficulties of terrain that requires tedious travelling and road risks, the sensitive political atmosphere is another obstacle as they have to seek permissions and are under constant vigilance of the border intelligence units. They have developed familiarity over the years due to their impactful engagements and work. Breaking the barriers of topography, the team has also reached regions that take 3 days to reach on foot. Even the highly sensitive Indo-China and Indo-Pak border areas that have been bombed previously have been touched by the teams’ work. And that’s where 17000 ft wins over everyone else, as it ventures into unreachable places to aid the Government schools with customized programs according to their requirements and facilitates the construction of infrastructure as well.

Public Library

Their vision for the upcoming years is to facilitate quality education in over 250 remote villages of Ladakh. Complimenting the Governments’ efforts to establish and develop modern classroom programs, the team aims to take digital learning to houses so that there is no break in education during the time when everything is shut down. They’re also working to introduce livelihood programmes in these areas.  Their next big step is to reach other such regions of the country like the North-Eastern states.

After literally reaching the namesake attitude, 17000 ft leaves us with a powerful message, in the words of co-founder Sujata:
“Don’t worry about the destination, just keep walking with FAITH.”
It reinforces the feeling that `there are miles to go, before we sleep.’

Article by Shambhavi Kapoor, Team ulaunch.

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