Truly a mosaic of multi-layered ethno-cultural diversities and rooted to strong traditional depths, the hills have eyes, and they await the oasis of your acknowledgement. The poor, under-clad children — denied access to education, immunisation and proper healthcare — and yet carrying infectious smiles on their faces and sporting twinkling black eyes… they were, and still remain, the source of 29-year-old Sudipto Pal’s hidden strength. A mountaineer and high-altitude cyclist, he is gearing up to undertake a confounding 5,000-km trans-Himalayan ride to help further the cause of education for children across the country, in association with CRY’s ‘School the Spark’ campaign.
Thousands of children in India lack access to education and can’t even write their own names. Moreover, children between the ages of 11–14 are hugely vulnerable to dropping out of school. When a child is able to go to school, it sets off a cycle of positive change. An educated child stays away from an early marriage and is empowered to stand up against exploitation. As children grow, they are able to make better choices for themselves and influence the communities they live in.
When children drop out of school, their potential remains unexplored. Education ensures that this ‘spark’ in every child is revealed and nurtured further, providing a platform to shine. Building on this thought, ‘School the Spark’ is a national campaign spearheaded by CRY. Spread over three phases over the next six months, it will focus on the challenges faced by children in accessing their basic right to education. CRY found the perfect partner in Sudipto Pal, an impassioned rider who swears by George Mallory’s “Because it’s there” school of thought.
Mountaineering and high-altitude cycling for over 15 years brought him close to the local people and taught him that it is the children residing in these difficult areas who are the most vulnerable when it comes to accessing opportunities and entitlements. “The Himalayas and its people, especially the children residing in those demanding terrains — these two things have always been with me, from the very first day I started visiting the mountains. I interacted with hundreds of children, who, given a chance to access education and other facilities could have grown to their full potential. It was actually a dream project for me to string together all of these piecemeal trips. This thought kept bugging me for the past eight years, and only recently I realised that perhaps now I am mentally and physically prepared to undertake such a humongous project.”
Once he decided to embark on the four-month-long solo journey through the Great Himalayan Arc from West to East, he knew that his focus would have to be on these children of the valley. Almost at the same time, he came to know about the ‘School the Spark’ campaign. It took him next to no deliberation to decide that he would reach out to them and dedicate this solo cycle trip to their campaign. The campaign will now be flagged off by Sudipto’s dream run. While he is away on his trans- Himalayan cycle trip, this Ride for Child Rights will be able not only to spread awareness about the importance of education for children, but also help them to raise funds for the cause and help children stay in school.
“To sum it all up, the whole idea of traversing the entire stretch at one go was to get to know the larger picture of the ethnic mosaic of the terrain and the plight of children in a terribly unfriendly geographic backdrop — all in one single panoramic frame,” says Sudipto.
Although he had planned to start from Srinagar, he had to change his plan at the last minute due to insurgencies in the city. Instead, he shifted point-zero to Kishtwar and started cycling from there on July 15. Moving along the course of the Chenab, through the Kaza–Tabo–Keylong–Theog trail and travelling through the Lahaul and Spiti valleys, he took on Uttarakhand next and is presently in the vicinity of upper Gahrwal, moving towards Barkot.
This 120-day journey will take him through some of the most treacherous trails in the Himalayas, including several high passes, narrow strips of roads laced with deep gorges, torrential streams, and tricky tracks crisscrossing rock-fall zones, glacial terrains and dense Alpine forests. En route, he will also attempt to scale one virgin peak. After that, he enters Nepal and moves on to enter India again at Ghum, near Darjeeling in West Bengal.
On the last leg of his journey, he will be crossing high valleys of Upper Assam along the course of the Brahmaputra to reach the virgin forests of Arunachal Pradesh, some stretches of which are rarely visited by mountain trekkers. If everything goes as planned, he will conclude his journey at Walong in Arunachal Pradesh.
He has already crossed his halfway mark and traveled 2,500 kilometres to reach Kathmandu.
What the map doesn’t reveal is the perilous weather conditions and the ordeal a solo trip is. “As I plan to do this during monsoon, weather is going to be a constant headache. I plan to tackle that by being on the other side of the watershed most of the time. The next big challenge is obviously physical, and going all alone and unaided. I will have to be extra-careful about my health, food, and rehydrating rituals. And the third possible challenge could be the machine — my cycle — as I can’t expect to have regular repair shops at every next corner of the road,” he says.
Scott Sports India Pvt. Ltd., a leading brand in manufacturing mountain bikes, supported the campaign by sponsoring the cycle for his journey, customised to meet the conditions anticipated head on.
The pan-India campaign will impact the lives of 2,52,293 children in the age group of 6–18 years in CRY supported projects. The first phase of the campaign will ensure that 79,744 children in the age group of 11–14 years do not drop out of school and get a chance to recognise, channelise, and develop their abilities to their full potential.
Sudipto and CRY are running a campaign to fund this initiative and the education of the beneficiaries. He says he is doing what he is best at to raise awareness about the importance of education for our children, and appeals to us to do what we can to back the cause.