Sonam Wangchuk gets put off whenever referred to as the real-life ‘Phunsukh Wangdu’, the mystery man Amir Khan’s ‘Rancho’ evolved into at the end of the runaway hit ‘3 Idiots’ that regaled filmgoers a decade ago. The character seemed too good to be true — an engineer with a passion for inventing machines to improve the lot of common people, and dedicated to impart meaningful education to kids. Mr Wangchuk may well have been the inspiration behind ‘Wangdu’, but he is all that and much more as people across the country are now finding out about this year’s Ramon Magsaysay award winner. An acclaimed innovator, he has been spearheading a movement for 3 decades to reform the school system in Ladakh, involving the government, village community and civil society. The mantra of alternative learning, live application and problem solving has been doing wonders to drastically reduce the once 95 percent failure rate in board exams in the backward region. Mr Wangchuk’s own circumstances were such that he was taught at home by his mother in mother tongue until 9 years old. He would later consider himself lucky for that grounding after a mechanical engineering degree from NIT Srinagar and higher studies in earthen architecture at France. Once a member of National Governing Council for Elementary Education in the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development, Mr Wangchuk’s views on schooling bear relevance to what is happening in Assam. He believes the responsibility for imparting basic education lies with the government, and equal access to education for all has to be ensured in government schools. Pointing to Bhutan’s leap in school education during the Eighties, he ascribes the ground-breaking improvement to the revered King sending his children to a fledgling government school rather than abroad. High officials and wealthy parents too followed suit. The ruling class in Bhutan thereby came to get first hand information of the conditions and goings-on in schools from their young wards, and thus had a huge vested interest in ensuring the very best in education. As for private schools, the few that operate there have to be satisfied with those who failed to make the cut in government schools! The contrast with Assam could not be more glaring. Ministers and bureaucrats here, with media in tow, take to the blackboard during Gunotsav exercises, but will they in their worst nightmares ever see themselves sending their wards to the government schools they assess? We bemoan the abysmal standards of government schools and neglect of instruction in mother tongue, while pillorying private schools for turning youngsters into zombies through mindless cramming. But that is our lot when the government abdicates its role, despite elementary education being a fundamental right.