The wireless village

By Deepak Adhikari

9 July 2013

A pioneering rural internet scheme in Nepal, and the man behind it, point toward a more inclusive digital future
Nangi village. Photos: Himachal Education Foundation website

Nangi village. Photos: Himachal Education Foundation website

Working on installations in Nangi

Working on installations in Nangi

Krishna Pun, a 41-year-old teacher at Himanchal High School in Nangi village in the central hills of Nepal, remembers the summer days of 2002 with glee. He was part of a half-dozen-strong army carrying dish antennas from Beni, the headquarters of the country’s Myagdi district, to a hilltop located at 3300m above sea level. “We would take turns to carry it. We even hauled food for ourselves because, except for a few shepherds, no one lived there.”

They could see the tourist town of Pokhara, where they had installed an antenna. Now the antenna at the hilltop was expected to receive its signals. “We were asked to turn the antenna to one side and then the other,” Krishna recalled. There was a desperate, laptop-based search for a signal. “Yes, we got connected!” exclaimed a rapturous voice. The victory was celebrated with an impromptu toast: a bottle of beer. That night, the contingent slept in a shed at the hilltop.

Unbeknown to Krishna, a groundbreaking initiative – nay, a rural revolution – was taking its first steps. In that misty afternoon, Mahabir Pun and two volunteers, Johan Verrept of Belgium and Jonni Lehtiranta of Finland, accompanied by three villagers carrying antennas and wireless cards donated by IBM, were on a mission that would change the digital landscape for a huge swathe of rural Nepal within a decade.

Pun’s Nepal Wireless Networking Project, based in Nangi, has pioneered electronic communications and facilities in a community whose access to them was non-existent until 2002. Now the project encompasses telemedicine, distance-learning, e-commerce and general communications. He has succeeded in imparting knowledge of the internet in the remote villages of central Nepal, and has now expanded his projects to the northeastern region.

Pun’s Nepal Wireless Networking Project has pioneered electronic communications in a community whose access to them was non-existent until 2002

The Nepal Wireless Network, which since 2009 has operated under a rural ISP, now encompasses 15 hilly districts and spans a total of 150 villages. A not-for-profit company, it collaborates with Village Development Committees and District Development Committees, also manages credit card payment facilities for trekkers and has subscribers in small bazaars like Jomsom and Ghandruk. I interviewed Pun at his Kathmandu fundraising restaurant, Nepal Connection. “We are the backbone,” he said, “but in terms of operation and maintenance, local technicians – school teachers and those who have interest in technology – run the wireless system.”

How did a young, US-educated, ethnic Magar man come up with the idea of connecting villagers of these remote hamlets to the outside world? How did he become, according to one of his US patrons, a “wireless prophet”? What has really changed in the daily lives of people in Nangi and the surrounding villages, now connected by Pun? How reliable is the network, and how has it influenced the economy of the area?

‘Welcome to Nangi village’

The idea emerged far from Nangi, in a United States university where Pun, having completed a postgraduate degree from the University of Nebraska, was pursuing a research project in the mid-1990s. Email was still in its nascent form, but Pun was an early user. At the time, introducing email to villages like Nangi must have seemed far-fetched.

In Nebraska, Pun’s professor asked him to set up a website about his village. He gathered all the materials he could: photos, texts and other information. The professor helped him upload it to a website that said: “Welcome to Nangi village.” It was perhaps the first website dedicated to a village in Nepal. Back then, none of the offices in Nepal – be they private or government – had websites. In Kathmandu, Mercantile, a private company, had just started as an ISP.

With renewed vigour and enthusiasm, Pun returned to Nangi in 1997, and became an indispensable teacher; he had helped set up Himanchal High School in the early 1990s. But at heart, he was an innovator, constantly searching for new ideas to improve the lives of his fellow villagers.

The school had launched a pen pal exchange programme with Billanook School in Australia. The students of Nangi would write letters to their peers halfway around the world. Through the initiative of Janita Keating, a teacher at Billanook, Himanchal High School received a donation of three computers: two desktops and one laptop. Pun found himself wondering how he could connect the computers to the internet so that students could continue the pen-pal programme in an easier, more modern way. “I started to explore how the traditional pen-pal system could be transformed into the new, less cumbersome online pen-pal. Then, I didn’t know how to install the internet. I explored [but] all I found was that one could connect to the internet with a dial-up which required a telephone connection,” he recalled. By 1998, there was an ISP operating in Pokhara. He wanted to use it, but Nangi didn’t have a single telephone connection. “Some people suggested we should install a satellite [receiver], but it turned out to be very expensive,” he recalled. Back then, there were only a handful of cyber cafés in the capital’s tourist district of Thamel. Ironically, the cyber cafés have now shut down after the expansion of wifi networks in the area’s hotels, restaurants and bars.

Meanwhile, a foreign tourist arrived in Nangi with a satellite phone. Upon enquiry, such a device seemed not only beyond their meagre budget, but also presented a logistical grey area, as, he was told, only United Nations officials were allowed to carry it. Through his friend’s brother, who worked at the state-owned Nepal Telecom, he obtained a Very High Frequency (VHF) telephone. “That attempt was not entirely futile, for we were able to at least connect the voice [service],” he said.

He continued to pursue a suitable, reliable and legal connection, and in 2001 shot off an email to the BBC website’s science and technology section. They asked him why he needed an internet connection, and soon the BBC ran a piece about his quest. “[Without the] BBC, I wouldn’t have known about the possibility of such technology,” Pun told me. After the news story, titled ‘Village in the cloud embraces computers’, was published, he was bombarded by messages from people around the world who wanted to help.

On his return flight from the US, he had carried computer parts from a recycling centre, and had learned how to assemble them. When the BBC ran the story, he had 20 computers. Moreover, he had urged his foreign volunteers to bring more computer parts, and set up a collection centre in Thamel. These computer parts were assembled in Nangi by local schoolteachers whom he had trained.

Although many young men from Nangi served abroad in the British Gurkhas, computers were still an alien object for most. “People flocked to see [them]. Although they didn’t know their utility, they had heard about them, and were curious. The main purpose was to teach the young students about their usage. We taught them how to type, how to create documents and save them,” he said.

What was the reason behind him sticking to such a rural backwater, while better opportunities awaited him in the cities? Pun said that he had not thought that it would be his life’s calling. In 1969, when he was 14, Pun’s ex-British Army father moved his family to the Chitwan district in the Tarai, to continue his son’s education. “I wanted to meet my relatives and friends and spend a few days at my birthplace. But I hadn’t thought I would stay there for long,” he told me. He found out that the villagers were in the process of setting up a school, and asked for his help. They neither had the funds nor the teachers required. Moved by their plight, he offered to help by teaching. In the first few years, he taught all subjects. If it were someone else, the story might have ended there – but Pun was a man of ideas. While in the US, he had come across the America-Nepal Education Foundation. From Chitwan, he wrote an email seeking their support. The foundation provided funding for teachers to undertake a two-year Bachelors of Education programme in Pokhara. The graduates, after completing their education, joined him as colleagues.

Although connecting the village to the outside world was his dream, part of Pun’s passion for the internet can be attributed to the fact that he had to trek for several hours through the mountain trails to check his emails in Pokhara. “Between 1997 and 2000, I trekked to Pokhara every month just to check mails, so that I could reply to the volunteers who wanted to visit Nangi and serve the community. I would tell them that I could check emails [again] only after a month,” he said.

Communication between nearby villages also proved difficult, because in some cases it would take days to reach a neighbouring village. There was no way to communicate other than to send a messenger on a gruelling trek through the rugged hills. “It dawned on me that if we could come up with some kind of local communication system in the villages, our work would be much easier, productive and less time-consuming,” he said. “Initially, we experimented with building small antennas that covered [areas of] one to two [square] kilometres. We needed big antennas to cover huge swathes of villages. So, we bought TV dish antennas for 10,000 rupees (USD 104) each and mounted them on trees. We experimented within the school compound covering a few hundred [square] metres.” Eventually, they used a wi-fi router, which cost USD 70. “We modified the receiver. The two volunteers (Verrept and Lehtiranta) were young students and they wanted to experiment and build something from scratch.”

By early 2002, his efforts were bearing fruit, but many people remained skeptical. Some engineers in Singapore questioned him: “Your equipment covers only a range of 100m, how is it possible to connect Nangi to Pokhara?” But, Pun says, “When I sent them emails from Nangi, they couldn’t deny it.”

His personality, demeanour and appearance – donated T-shirts worn with simple flip-flops – created the image of a rustic village boy uncomfortable with the formalities of the city

After this successful experiment, he knocked on the doors of the Nepal government’s Ministry of Communications and Information looking for the permissions he should have obtained before he embarked on the project. He was told by a top official, after five months spent running from pillar to post, that he would not receive them. “It was during the war, so the government was skeptical about any such activities,” he said.

But Pun wasn’t a man to be easily deterred. By this time, a total of five villages in Myagdi district had been connected by the wifi network. The villagers, out of curiosity and the desire to learn new things, made their way to the school and communicated with others living in the region. Demand grew as communities learned through word of mouth about this new mode of communication. “Nobody knew that the countryside would be connected with the outside world so soon. But once they did, everyone jumped to it.”

Substantial donations from abroad also began to trickle in. In 2003, an American volunteer received a USD 10,000 grant from the California-based Donald A Strauss Scholarship Foundation. The fund was instrumental for the installation of solar panels. The next year, they succeeded in connecting a server in Pokhara with landline phones in Nangi, bringing in a telephone network for the locals. “The villagers started to call their relatives in Pokhara and other places. There was just one telephone line, and it became so busy that they had to make a [schedule] for villagers,” he recalled.

A real-life WebMD

By late 2004, Himanchal High School was equipped with webcams, which made internet meetings possible. Pun said that the first few years were exciting as well as challenging, and that he was always on the lookout for ways to empower his fellow villagers. Prem Pun, a medical doctor from Nangi, was based in Pokhara. When he enquired about how he could help, the concept of telemedicine emerged: The doctor would talk to his patients through webcams, in order to give them a diagnosis, and recommend medicines stocked in Nangi’s spartan health centre. Similarly, in 2006, teachers from an engineering college in Pokhara asked him if they could help in the field of education. Pun accepted their offer, and also that of a group able to assist in the establishment of an online bazaar, where farmers could upload prices and pictures of farm and dairy products. Thus was born the village’s e-marketing project.

During the decade-long Maoist insurgency, Pun’s work was under heavy scrutiny from the authorities, who sought to clamp down on the insurgents’ communication systems. But Pun was brimming with ideas, and as soon as the war ended in 2006, he shared the telemedicine proposal with his college friend Saroj Dhital, who was a general surgeon at Kathmandu Model Hospital. By then, the Pokhara-based doctor was no longer available for the work. “Then, I was also thinking about how we can demystify medical practice, and reach out to people in remote areas,” Dhital said. Pun chose to expand the concept to Dolakha, where a hospital had recently opened. Initially, they relied on webcams, but in 2009 they switched to more sophisticated video conferencing equipment.

On a rainy afternoon in June this year, I sat at a conference table with Dhital, on the second floor of Kathmandu Model Hospital. Dhital is a short, bespectacled man, who is articulate and possesses a cool demeanor, exuding confidence and camaraderie. Dr Subash Paudel was seeking his advice in the case of a 16-year-old admitted to the hospital in Dolakha Bazaar in the eponymous district 75 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu. Via a large screen, Paudel explained the symptoms of the patient, calling it a “complicated case.” “He has a complaint of fever, pain in the abdomen, and ejects a black stool,” Paudel said. Although the video was at times blurry and shaky, Dhital was able to glean as much information as he needed from Paudel. He summed up the case: “You seem to be heading towards anti-typhoid treatment. But wait for up to two weeks; be patient.” Paudel and his two colleagues at the other end seemed reassured after receiving instructions from a senior doctor.

“This is the way to go,” Dhital told me a while later in his small office, where he served me a cup of jasmine tea. “This is affordable and accessible,” he said of Pun’s telemedicine projects linked to hospitals and health posts in Hetauda, Pharping and Jomsom. According to Dhital, telemedicine addresses two impediments against healthcare provision: the harsh geography and the lack of human resources, particularly doctors, in the countryside. But he also elaborated on the challenges of running such an operation where rural patients get addicted to the “doctors from Kathmandu”. “One reason many doctors don’t want to go to the villages is that they soon feel isolated because our work so much depends on discussions, problem-sharing and solving,” he said. Doctors like Paudel now benefit from daily morning conference calls with the hospital in Kathmandu, where, according to Dhital, several medical cases are discussed and brainstormed by senior doctors.

But Dhital also pointed out that the operation had been hamstrung by infrastructural woes. Between 2009 and 2010, the equipment (four satellite hubs installed between Dolakha Bazar and Kathmandu) was damaged by an electrical storm, and solar panels necessary to power the batteries were stolen. “Then came the bandwidth problem. It was so slow,” he recalled. But he assured me that from now on, it would run smoothly.

A man with a plan

Pun was almost unknown to most Nepalis before he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2007, which recognised his innovative application of wireless technology. It was only after the award that he was courted by the mainstream Nepali media. His personality, demeanour and appearance – donated T-shirts worn with simple flip-flops – created the image of a rustic, even romantic village boy uncomfortable with the formalities of Kathmandu, which has long treated the countryside with apathy and cynicism.

The 58-year-old divides his time between his project sites in Nangi and Kathmandu. With dishevelled hair, and glasses dangling at his chest, Pun is a simple man with a vision and mission. He speaks slowly, almost in whispers. As the conversations at other tables in his restaurant grew louder, I had to repeatedly ask him to raise his voice. Although he seemed to have recognised Kathmandu’s centrality in garnering support for his work, his temperament hasn’t earned him accolades in more personal quarters. One of his friends told me, “He hardly greets people, and is often engrossed in his own work.” He retains the village-boy aura, and is well respected by his beneficiaries. But his answers are often laconic, a trait that has been criticised by his colleagues.

Although the award proved a turning point in his campaign, Pun had his reservations. “When I was awarded the Magsaysay, I said it was a little early, because we were still learning. We are still learning. We are trying to launch new projects such as research and development,” he told me. But he said it helped him draw more donations. He said that his “major achievement is that at least villagers [are] aware of computers and the internet.” He is working on taking it to the next level, by developing a model for a cyber café in every village. “The concept comes from the prevalence of teashops and grocery stores in the villages. This will provide an ICT (Information and Communication Technology) service that can range from mobile repairs to sending emails,” he said.

His foreign donors have been very kind to him and his work. One of them, Janita Keating, the Australian schoolteacher who donated computers in 1992, has praised his work in her e-book Eye on the Goal: Mahabir’s Vision, based on her family’s visit to Nangi in 1998. While looking to donate to schools in Nepal, Keating and her husband Todd had ended up on Pun’s website through search engines like Lycos and the recently defunct Alta Vista – before the era of Google. “It is truly spectacular that one man can mobilise so much local and international support and have vision, passion and capability to make the dream a reality,” she writes. “It is because of Mahabir’s tenacious resolve to make a difference that so many Nepali lives have been changed. The vision was grounded in empowering the villages to improve their quality of life through education, vocation and self-sustainability.”

Sustainability is also a word often uttered by his colleagues and critics, but with obvious negative connotations. It was most eloquently put by a schoolteacher when he was interviewed by two scholars doing field research in Nangi and the surrounding villages. “It was not possible without him … for example, there are many people who came from foreign countries to observe the project, but there were none who said they would work with Mahabir. Therefore, while Mahabir is here, it will function properly. However, in his absence, we need another person like him for the sustainability of this project,” he was quoted as saying in a 2010 paper by Devinder Thapa and Maung K. Sein, scholars of the University of Agder in Norway. Dhital echoed the sentiment. “He has so far relied on volunteers. But what if some day they stopped coming to Nepal? I often ask him about his successor. Although I know that there are a whole army of unsung heroes who helped him succeed, but it’s hard to sustain this model forever,” added Dhital.

Kishor Rimal, who has worked with Pun as a volunteer since February 2010, said: “He still relies on volunteers. He thinks that everyone [should] be as motivated as he is. He is involved with so many organisations and he hasn’t devolved the power; he alone heads most.” The big question lingers: What happens after Mahabir? He hasn’t groomed a successor. He doesn’t keep tabs on funding; how much has been received and how much spent. In the summer of 2008, Rimal, an undergraduate student of Media Studies at Kathmandu University, travelled to Nangi with his college friends and spent two weeks there. “We had read in the news that the lifestyle of the villagers had been changed, thanks to the internet. But what we found was Pun had provided a platform, but the usage was minimal. The old people would talk to their sons or daughters who lived abroad through webcams, and that’s it,” he recalled.

For Rimal, a Kathmandu native, the experience was not life-changing, but he was impressed. “We found lodges which accommodated up to 20 tourists. They developed a project and trained the villagers on the use of the internet for marketing produce and livestock. They were given cameras and trained to upload pictures to the web. About two dozen villages had access to the internet,” he said.

Rimal painted Pun as an authority in the village. In Nangi, he heard about an incident in which Pun persuaded villagers to reduce the duration of a week-long festival to only a couple of days. “The villagers would celebrate an ethnic festival for a week, neglecting their work. But when Pun told them that there was no point indulging in it for such a long period, they started to celebrate it only for two days. It showed that locals respected his suggestions,” Rimal told me.

Even today, Pun’s basic model hasn’t changed much. Before he sat down for an interview with me, he was talking to three young students – two men and a woman – from the United States, who had arrived to volunteer in Nangi. “He is a leader but not an entrepreneur. He can be called a visionary but definitely not a good manager. He runs his projects in a haphazard manner. He is careless about his schedules and can be easily swayed by smart people,” Rimal said. Pun is indeed involved in several NGOs: the National Trust for Nature Conservation, the Institute for Himalayan Conservation, E-Learning Research and Development, Open Learning Exchange, Nepal Research and Education Network, and others.

“He is a workaholic,” Rimal said, recalling an incident when Pun had once arrived at his office wearing mismatched slippers. Rimal took a photo and posted it on Facebook, drawing several comments. Everyone at the office was laughing, but he didn’t care. Dhital made similar observations. “He is a monk, but he also expects everyone around him to abandon the worldly life and join his monastery. [But] people have their own preferences,” Dhital said.

Until recently, middle-class discourse about the virtues of Bengali cuisine hinged on the gendered and classed character of its construction

What’s Pun’s next big project? He has his eyes on Nepal’s two most vital natural resources: tourism and hydropower. But even before dwelling on it, he tells me human resources are the key to development. “We need brains to develop a country. We are losing our talents. They have migrated to foreign countries. We need to create a platform for innovation. To succeed in the bid, we need a loan from the government … [but] we want to be financially independent,” he told me. “If there’s government investment, it will intervene in [our] operation[s], so [we] won’t be independent.” As an alternative, he has sought a government loan to invest in a 10 megawatt hydroelectricity project. “We will run the centre from the revenue,” he said.

Although Pun’s work is pioneering in Nepal, it has hardly been replicated elsewhere in Southasia. However, in India, the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) was founded in December 2002 by Osama Manzar, a man who describes himself as a “convert social entrepreneur”. His works include helping the traditional Chanderi weavers of Ashok Nagar in Madhya Pradesh to design fabric patterns using computers, and an ‘eNGO’ programme, which, according to the DEF’s website, provides more than one million Indian NGOs with affordable web design services and e-learning for rural people. DEF, under their Wireless for Communities scheme, has also conducted training in Bangladesh (November 2011) and Bhutan (April 2012) to help connect rural communities to the internet.

When I asked Pun if any of his students from Nangi had gone on to do similarly notable things, he confessed that none had. “No one with a degree in computer sciences?” I repeated. “No,” he replied. Then he explained his broader vision and goal: “Our goal was not to change the lives of local people overnight. And it’s simply not possible because the rural areas are remote.” When I raised the issue of growing criticism against the notion of technology as a panacea to all human ills, especially those which rural communities face, he dismissed it. “First, technology will make life easier. Second, it will bridge the digital gap. Moreover, our concern is to prepare the young generation for a digital future. We are empowering youths for their lives in cities. Those who study at schools in villages and go for further studies in the cities will not have to face difficulty in navigating the internet, which has become a must for learning. Our work will help them to integrate into the world wide web.”

According to the latest data released by the Nepal Telecom Authority in May this year, internet penetration is at more than 25 percent. I wondered whether or not wifi networks of this scale and complexity were necessary, given the proliferation of mobile phones, even in rural hinterlands. Pun opined that the usage of mobile phones among rural people was limited to phone calls. “They don’t really use it for [the internet],” he said. He thinks that work like his is still needed, but he would rather search for a remote region for further expansion. “If it’s already within [an established] network, we don’t need to work there,” he said. “These days, when someone asks me to help connect a village with wifi, my first question is: Does the village have any access to the internet? Is there an ISP? If it’s already connected, they don’t need our support.”

Deepak Adhikari is a Kathmandu-based journalist with Agence France-Presse. His work has appeared in leading Nepali publications including Nepal Weekly, Kantipur and the Kathmandu Post. He has also written for TIME magazine and The Caravan.

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