Published: 09th April 2018
Road to Bylakuppe: How India's largest Tibetian settlement is promoting entrepreneurship
By creating an entrepreneurship club in the Tibetan Children's Village Bylakuppe, the Tibetan refugees in India are hoping to create more employment opportunities and a better life
An overnight train journey from Chennai to Mysuru. A ride in a rickety KSRTC bus. 15 hours after I left my city, there I was, in front of a board that read ‘Tibet Administration’. The Sun was right over my head, powerful and firm. "Hi, you must be Parvathi," an unfamiliar, yet friendly voice from behind me said. I quickly turned around to see a young man in his early 30s, dressed in a clean, wrinkle-free and neatly tucked light blue shirt and a pair of light brown pants. It was Tenzin Phentok, a teacher of Business Studies at the SOS Tibetan Children's Village, Bylakuppe. "You don't mind hopping on a two-wheeler, do you?" he asked. "Not at all," I replied as I sat behind Phentok on his white Activa and headed into the town of Bylakuppe that is home to over 30,000 Tibetans — also the largest Tibetan settlement in India.
When Phentok met TED
TED Talks? Ted Mosby? Teddy bear? There are so many Teds! But for the thousands of Tibetans in India, this three-letter abbreviation is the answer to their employment and a better and brighter future. Tibetan Entrepreneurship Development (TED) is an initiative by the Social and Resource Development Fund (SARD) under the Department of Finance, Central Tibetan Administration. Even though it's been years since the first generation of Tibetans migrated to India, they still carry a yellow identity card and are not recognised as Indian citizens anymore. "It is still very difficult for us to compete with the other Indians. There are not many employment opportunities for us. The ones who are aptly skilled mostly migrate to the US or Switzerland in search of good jobs," says Phentok.
Lack of exposure and shortage of funds are the major hurdles that we face mostly here. I want my students to create a better future for Tibet and for India
Tenzin Phentok, teacher, TCV Bylakuppe
Therefore, to create better employment opportunities for Tibetans and to teach them to 'fend for oneself', TED was established. To sow the seeds of entrepreneurship among the young Tibetans, who would, in turn, become the assets who could help in their motherland's liberation, TED decided to introduce entrepreneurship clubs in schools. And hence, it was introduced in TCV Bylakuppe by Phentok in 2016. "We had a club previously in TCV Dharamshala, but then we decided to shift the club to this school and then I was transferred," says Phentok, as we enter the school's gate.
One day, some day
Bylakuppe is a small town sandwiched between Mysuru and Kodagu. Though there's a chance you'll miss it when on the road, it will definitely strike you as odd to see so many houses (in a place that's nowhere near the Himalayas) have prayer flags dancing in the wind. You may even see a few Buddhist monks in their typical attire, sipping filter coffee and eating steamy dosas, while talking to each other in a language that you might not have heard of. (Most of them speak Kannada too, by the way!)
"His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama always insists on us speaking Tibetan. He wants us to stay close to our roots," says Phentok, who was born in India and is among the few lucky ones who got to stay with his family. "I have students who have no memory of their parents. Fearing the Chinese, many parents send their children, even ones as young as five, to India. If they're lucky, they end up crossing the border without getting shot by the soldiers. Many have lost fingers, toes and even eyes to frostbite. There is no way these kids can go back or get in touch with their parents," says Phentok, pointing at a map of Tibet framed on the school's dining hall wall.
Learning right: Students of TCV Bylakuppe
He shows us the village where his grandparents were born. He still calls it home even though he isn't sure he'll go there even once. "The Chinese police taps phones all the time. We don't want people back home to get into trouble because of us. Also, for many, there is still hope that someone somewhere is there for them. That thought pushes many of my students to do something fruitful for themselves and for the community," he says, as we walk towards the school's building to meet the members of his entrepreneurship club.
Making changes, one step at a time
After a ten-minute walk, we reached the senior wing of the school. The school was set up by Jetsun Pema, the 14th Dalai Lama's sister, in 1981. We head straight to the principal's office. The principal, Dhondup Tsering was excited to talk about the initiatives undertaken by the school. After much persuasion, the school has been granted permission to teach entrepreneurship as a subject. Also, the entrepreneurship club is in full swing. But that isn't an end to all the troubles. "We are not eligible for any schemes by the Indian government and so, we have to find a way. Right now, the Tibetan government in exile is encouraging more young people to begin something on their own. I hope this is a positive change," he says. Currently, 40 students are part of the club.
We encourage Tibetan children to be thankful to Indians and behave well with others. Each of them represent their country and the others judge Tibet through them
Dhondup Tsering, Principal, TCV Bylakuppe
Next, we head to the school ground where Phentok introduced me to his team of changemakers. A group of Tibetan teenagers greeted me. "There is no room allotted for the club as such, but we meet on the ground as frequently as possible and decide what we can do," says Phentok, reminding me that they're just getting started and haven't done much yet. Most of their projects are the ones involving everyday life. For instance, a group of 12th graders came up with a project that demonstrates the ill-effects of smoking, using a plastic bottle. "Nowadays, a lot more youngsters are taking up smoking on campus. That definitely can't be encouraged. But a survey that we took before and after demonstrating this experiment shows a significant reduction in the number of smokers," says Phentok. We also talk to Tenzin Dolma, who wishes to be a businesswoman. Her project was something she calls a ‘flip-flop chart’ — a chart that can be pasted without damaging the walls. TED also sends a few Tibetan entrepreneurs frequently to deliver talks at the school.
A few decades ago: TCV Bylakuppe was established in 1981 on sixteen acres of land donated by the Tibetans who stay in the settlement
These students also found out the amount the school spends on dairy products and came up with a solution to reduce it by buying from a local dairy farm. "These aren't big projects, but at least now, the students have a dream to do something different, something fruitful for the community. The introduction of the entrepreneurship subject is going to make a lot of difference for sure," says a hopeful Phentok. Lack of exposure and fund crunch are troubling him, but hope still remains. This is, in fact, a stepping stone for the greater good of the community.
Inspiring young Tibetans
Gyurme Tenzin is one of the Tibetan entrepreneurs in Bylakuppe. At 28, he owns i-Lab, a new generation coaching centre, where he teaches English, Mathematics and Science through fun ways. Also, his centre has a TED-Ed club through which his students get to exchange ideas with students from around the world, encouraging them to make the change