Mahabir Pun uses the internet to improve life in remote parts of Nepal
Mahabir Pun uses the internet to improve education and medical services for those in remote areas of Nepal, writes Mark Sharp
Mahabir Pun is what the Internet Society calls a "global connector". His perseverance in leveraging the internet to improve lives in remote corners of Nepal saw him inducted into the society's Internet Hall of Fame at a ceremony held in Hong Kong in April. Yet the technology pioneer had not even come across a radio until visiting soldiers brought one to his village when he was a schoolboy.
The seeds of his initiative were sown in 2001 when he returned to his native village of Nangi, western Nepal, after completing a master's degree in education at University of Nebraska, Kearney, in the US.
To check his e-mail, he had to make a trip to Pokhara, which meant a five-hour walk and three-hour bus ride. In Nepal's mountains at that time, email was not much better than snail mail.
So, Pun set himself the goal of bringing wireless internet to Nangi's 700 villagers, primarily to provide better educational opportunities for its youngsters.
He upgraded the village school with donor support via his Himanchal Education Foundation. Meanwhile, he set up income-generating projects such as yak and rabbit farming, and jam and cheese making in Nangi and neighbouring villages.
By 2006, he had hooked up 13 mountain hamlets to the information superhighway. The following year, he received a Ramon Magsaysay Award - Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize - in recognition of his achievements.
Pun's wireless internet initiative was initially a daunting task. When he began, the government was fighting a Maoist insurgency and had banned the movement of wireless equipment into the rebels' rural strongholds. But Pun was undeterred.
"I got university students from America and Europe to smuggle in the equipment," he says. "I told the students, very clearly, 'OK, what we are doing is illegal, so just hide it in your backpack.' They were very brave. The good thing was that the government was too busy fighting with the Maoists, and the Maoists had no idea what we were doing."
In 2006, the Maoists signed a peace accord with the government, and Pun was able to carry on with his work freely. He has now helped to connect almost 200 remote settlements.
Since few families are able to afford a computer at home, each village has up to four computers - in schools, clinics, communications centres and local government offices.
What served initially as a communications tool for these isolated communities has gone on to improve their quality of life in ways they never imagined.
"We have shifted our focus from communication to using the technology for education, health and e-commerce, because we did not know how we could use the internet in the early years," Pun says.
He is now a board member of Open Learning Exchange Nepal, which creates digital educational content in Nepalese, based on the school curriculum. The content is loaded onto local servers, which students can download at school, along with teacher training materials.
Rural education had long been close to Pun's heart, thanks to his father's influence. "My father served in British Army as a Gurkha and served in Hong Kong for many years. He was the only person in my home village who 'forced' his son to go to high school, and he discouraged me from joining the army. I think he had realised the importance of education when he was in Hong Kong," he says.
After finishing secondary school, Pun worked as a teacher in village schools for 12 years to help fund his siblings' education. Then, in 1989, he was granted a partial scholarship to study for an undergraduate degree at the University of Nebraska. He remained at the university to complete his master's degree.
As a child, however, he had not heard of America until a soldier visited the school and told the class about how Americans had sent people into the sky in a rocket, then got out and walked in the air. "Another soldier brought a box-like thing called a 'radio' that talked and sang. One day, when nobody was around, I sneaked into his room and looked into the talking and singing box to see the people inside."
The application has brought considerable improvements to another of Pun's internet-linked initiatives - health care. "We started video-conferencing to connect the rural clinics to a doctor in a hospital in Pokhara.
"Whenever someone had a problem, the village health worker could call the doctor using the webcam and [now-defunct Microsoft] NetMeeting," he says.
Since then, more advanced servers and video-conferencing has made communications even smoother. "Skype is a lot better now, also. People in the villages had never been to hospitals; they had never seen a doctor. So at least now, if they get seriously ill, they can go to the clinic and connect to a doctor in the city," he says.
"If the doctor thinks the case is serious, he can tell them to go to the nearest hospital. If it is not so serious, he can recommend medicine. If that is not available in the clinic, they can ask someone who is coming from the city to bring some."
This set-up is invaluable because it is not feasible to build a full-service hospital in a remote village, Pun says. Besides, "No doctor, after attending university in a city, wants to go and spend their time in a small village."
Likewise, banks don't find it commercially viable to open branches in far-flung locations, even though there are tens of thousands of Nepalis working around the world who need to send money home to their families. Previously, family members would have to make their way to the nearest city to collect it from a money transfer service. With the internet, it's possible to organise delivery, for a commission, Pun says. He is now trying to bring e-banking services to rural areas.
"We will have somebody working as a village agent of the bank. This agent will help people open bank accounts and deposit or withdraw money," he says.
"He will have to go to the village once in a while when people want to do that, and he will be paid a commission. I think that is the only way to bring banking services to the rural areas."
Other technological solutions Pun has introduced to the impoverished nation include the Nepal Trekkers Tracking System, which is currently at the pilot stage. Relay stations have been built along a mountain route, and trekkers who sign up for the service are given wireless tags to wear that keep tabs of their whereabouts.
"Whenever this trekker goes along the route and passes the relay station, it automatically receives a signal - the ID number of the trekker - and sends it to the server. The family of this trekker can watch over the internet, and can track it and find where their family member is," Pun says.
"This is something we are doing in case a trekker gets lost or dies unexpectedly. It will be easier to find them on the mountain trail."
Similarly, Pun is working with friends on a surveillance system for porters at Chitwan National Park, on Nepal's southern plains, which is home to tigers and rhinos. It is also the hunting ground of armed poachers.
Pun says his job won't be done until all the villages in Nepal are connected to the internet. "My focus now, as from the very beginning, is only to connect the villages where no commercial service provider will go," he says, pointing out that 70 per cent of Nepalis live in rural areas.
"I'm working hard to make people more digitally literate. If they don't, then they will be left behind. Nepal is one of the least developed countries, and it will be an even less developed if we don't do this."