Lifeline of the mountains
Mahabir Pun is an example of what can be done singlehandedly to transform life in the rugged Nepali regions - he is a doer, not a talker. His understanding and use of technology has transformed lives in some of the most inhospitable places on earth, where there are no roads or hospitals and where most people scratch out a meagre living as subsistence farmers.
It all started when Pun travelled to the United States in the 1990s to study for a Masters degree. The internet was just becoming popular, and one of his professors suggested they set up a website for his home village. It was one of the first internet sites to mention Nepal, and by the time he returned home, Pun was being bombarded by messages from people around the world who wanted to visit the 800-strong mountain community.
“At that time, not even businesses in (the capital) Kathmandu had websites, but Nagi did,” he says from his native village, 2,200 metres (7,200 feet) up in the Himalayas.
“I was getting emails from all sorts of people including doctors and college professors, and they all wanted to know what they could do to help our village. So I invited them to come and volunteer.”
Pun decided his students should learn about this emerging new technology, but the school could not afford to buy a computer. So he asked everyone who came to bring a component, and set about teaching himself to build one. He organised a collection centre in the backpacker district of Kathmandu, and managed to put together around a dozen makeshift computers, building them in wooden crates and distributing them to schools in the area.
But it was not until 2002 that, with the help of volunteer students, a plan was formed to hook up the village to the internet using a Wi-Fi connection from the nearest major town, Pokhara. There were myriad challenges. No one had ever tried to build a Wi-Fi network at such a high altitude before, and a series of relay towers had to be built to beam the signal through the narrow valleys. All the construction materials had to be carried up the mountain by hand along with the solar panels needed for power. The highest stands at 3,600 metres, and is manned by a yak farmer who has to check the connections daily.
Mains electricity had still not reached any of the villages, and to make things even more difficult, Nepal was in the grip of a bloody Maoist insurgency and Nagi had fallen completely under the control of the leftist guerrillas. “The Maoists had eyes everywhere. They used to come and ask lots of questions, but they didn’t know much about the internet,” says Pun. “All the parts we used were totally illegal. If the army had come here more frequently, they would have put a stop to it.”
Once again, Pun asked his foreign volunteers to bring what they could to help — customs officials, he reasoned, would be unlikely to suspect Western backpackers of smuggling in contraband communications equipment. Nagi was the first village to be connected, and by September 2003, five villages in Myagdi district, around 200 miles (300 kilometres) north-west of Kathmandu, were accessing the network.
Now, Pun operates two networks that connect more than 100 villages to the internet — a significant achievement in a country where just 6.3 per cent of people have online access.
In 2007 he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay prize — widely viewed as the Asian equivalent of the Nobel — for community leadership. But he is determined to avoid the world of “conferences, resolutions and commitments,” and has said he only accepted because the USD 50,000 prize could help put more villages online.
Internet allows the local communities to access vital medical expertise via videolink, stay in touch with loved-ones abroad, and even sell their yaks, goats and chickens online on www.nepalwireless.com — a sort of e-Bay for local farmers.