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Digital Unifier: Mahabir Pun

May 19, 2014 , by Supriya Rai, Leave your thoughts
Digital Unifier: Mahabir Pun » My Dreams Mag

 

“Swartha chai eutai nabhako manche raicha tyo…”

“Dherai saral manche… dhido diye ni majale khane, macha masu banau bhanda ni, dukha nagarnu bhanne ke”

“Manche herda chai pheri pakka gothale…”

 

So went the conversation between the micro bus conductor and a group of porters who were on their way to Kathmandu after working at the ABC trek. Their discussion was centered on one individual, who has gained the trust and respect of many Nepalis for his innovation, dedication and selfless demeanor, endearing him to the often disillusioned masses. The gothale who changed the face of remote Nepal by connecting it to the world wide web is the 2007 recipient of the Ramon Magasaysay Award, LHD Mahabir Pun.

 

For a boy from Nangi, a remote village in Myagdi, who hadn’t read a book until his father handed him a copy of Nepal ko Itihaas in grade 7, school was less about learning and more about his friends.

 

Ghar basi kaam garnu parne, school gaye khelna paune.”

Staying at home meant doing chores whereas school meant playtime.”

 

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Pun Sr. though had bigger plans for his eldest and off went the boy to a better school in the besi and later to one in Chitwan. After an initial period of adjustment, Mahabir as he was called, took to school like a duck to water, spurred on by what he then considered to be a luxury, real textbooks and stationeries- a book for each subject being taught at school and actual paper that one could do long divisions on.

 

At a time when most people in rural communities didn’t even understand the importance of education let alone know what the School Leaving Certificate was (ominously dubbed the “Iron Gate” by Nepali media), Mahabir passed his in Second Division.

 

“Padhna ma mero lagav pani buwa ko jod le garda nai thiyo. Ma kebal ek agyakari chora bhayera, buwa ko icchya puraidine matra garthe.”

 

“My dad wanted to educate me and really all I did was follow his wishes like a dutiful son.”

 

Bound by the same sense of filial duty and encouraged by his SLC results, the most educated boy from Nangi soon found himself sitting for his I.Sc. entrance examinations in the capital.

 

I hadn’t even had the time to think about what I wanted to do in life or who I wanted to be. I had no mentors who I could turn to for advice. Only after coming to Kathmandu and making friends, did I slowly start gathering that studying science meant the possibility of becoming a thulo manche like doctors and engineers”, confesses Pun in a measured voice.

 

Amrit Science Campus, one of the best colleges in town then, accepted him into their program; the only catch being classes there were taught in English. That was a time when the Nepal government was running a scholarship scheme which granted all First Division I.Sc. graduates scholarships to foreign universities. For the wide-eyed scholar though, it was not to be. Despite his vast efforts at grasping the English language and failing that, to mug up the lessons, the results in his hands whimpered ‘Second Division’.

 

“Sakey samma ta lesson rateykai thiye, bujhe pani nabujhe pani…”, says the-would-have-been-engineer, a slow grudging laugh escaping from his lips.

 

Ever the champion of education, his father was unperturbed. He wanted his son to study on, pursue a Bachelors Degree. By then though, the wised-up youth had had the time to realize that his family’s financial situation could not permit him that opportunity.

 

The student became a master. Against his father’s wishes, Mahabir took up a position as a teacher in Chitwan. His salary not only provided for his family but also paid for his sisters’ and brothers’ education. Only after 12 dutiful years, did he start mulling over his pending Bachelors degree. And so American library-issued TOEFL books and cassettes replaced his chalk and cane. For the next year and a half, Pun concentrated on just these two things – practicing for TOEFL exams and corresponding with American universities via post for scholarships.

 

“Ankha chimlera sab college ma try garda garda …”

 

“I didn’t know if I would ever get into any college but I kept trying relentlessly.”

 
Mahabir Pun

Finally a partial scholarship in the University of Nebraska opened up and off the school-master went to attain his father’s lifelong wish to a foreign land in 1989. Unfortunately, the Pun family were bereft of their figurehead, before he could have even heard of ‘Aa-me-rika.’ Partial turned to full as soon as the first semester’s results came in. With a hint of uncharacteristic pride, he says, “First semester ma gayera saabai lai chakka paridiye…”

 

“I blew everyone away during the first semester…”

 

However language was still a big barrier for the returning student. Despite mastering the written language, communicating in English proved tricky; deja vu of his I.Sc. days all over again. But the determined man that he is, he persevered and in 1992 managed to earn his Bachelors Degree in Science Education.

 

Was he never tempted to make a life for himself in America? Surely having had such a hard life back in Nepal, he must have at least contemplated it?

 

Aaa…. Sochina!”, he immediately dismisses the question; in typical fashion the graduate quietly returned home to his family in Nepal.

 

Armed with an American degree and vague ideas on how he could help this remote corner of Myagdi, the prodigal son of Nangi returned 24 years later to his birthplace. For a few months no one took him seriously at the village; everyone assumed he had come back for a chuttii. Pun himself had doubts if he could make any significant contribution there or if they would welcome his ideas. Reflecting on his own experiences and hardships, he pledged to start with the establishment of a school- Himanchal High School- with the help of a few supporters.

 

“I used to think to myself that I would stick around for a year or two and see how it goes. If it didn’t work out, then maybe I would think of doing something else.”

 

With the school up and running, he got busier by the day and with his workload also grew the overheads. “I never believed in donations. Even this,” he says with a casual wave around the green walls of his Nepal Connection cafe in Thamel, “has been started by taking out a loan of Rs 20 Lakhs. Once every penny has been paid back, the proceeds from this cafe will be used to fund more development programs.” Pun stresses that he has never sought charitable donations or actively pursued fund-raising . “Yes, sometimes people who are interested in my work want to help and that I thankfully accept.”

 

So characteristically, while living and working besides the impoverished Nangi community, his thoughts turned to possible income-generating ideas that would require little investment and minimal training. Thus began projects like making Lokta paper, local handicrafts, plum jams, animal husbandry, etc. that helped bring some much needed surplus income in the region.

 

1996 proved to be a turning point for Nangi; on a trip to America for a semester at University of Nebraska where he had enrolled himself for a Masters in Educational Administration, Pun created a website on his village. A trivia to put the significance of that move into perspective- at that time the only other website in Nepal was Mercantile’s. With Nangi’s story now online, the interest in this rural part of the world peaked. Four donated computers from students abroad made it possible for Pun to finally start computer classes at his school.

 

However one major problem still existed – connectivity to the world wide web. Pokhara, a two day walk away from Nangi, was the nearest base with internet. Frustrated with the inconveniencing situation, Pun architected a solution to bring internet to his doorsteps.

 

“I did it foremost for personal reasons of course. Kati Hidne! But I also saw the need for a communication system between several villages of Myagdi where we were running our income generating schemes. Then we didn’t have the convenience of landline or mobile phones in all of our villages. So to me impossible though it seemed, internet looked like the only solution.”

 

Mustang

 

The existing technology couldn’t support the long range coverage needed to connect Pokhara with Nangi. On top of that Pun also lacked the technical knowledge and funds needed to cover his operational costs. All the experts believed it couldn’t be done; the optimist in him though wouldn’t give up. The second stroke of genius, though one begins to wonder if not all of Pun’s move are brilliantly calculated, proved to be his email to the editor of BBC News in 2001. The mail itself was barely two sentences long he explains, one explaining his predicament and the other requesting help to be put in touch with anyone who might be able to offer any insight.

 

As word on his endeavor spread around the world, help started trickling in. Notably it was the time when the country was in the grips of civil war, and Nepal Army having banned all wireless technology in the fear that it would be exploited by the insurgents, the college students from America and Europe were basically helping him smuggle in equipments for the wireless project. After endless testing phases and improvisations, in 2003, Pun and his team finally engineered a breakthrough and would you believe it? within two years of that email, Nangi had established a link to Pokhara.

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With the rapid development in wireless technology, Pun realized that what was created primarily for the purpose of communication alone had more potential than initially believed. He soon spearheaded e-health projects via videoconferencing with existing hospitals, e-learning and distance learning via online resources and e-commerce sites.

 

Today his wireless network has reached 15 districts connecting over 160 villages where they are used for various purposes. His tireless work and innovative spirit was recognized by the Ashoka Foundation who elected Pun as an Ashoka Fellow in 2002. 2007 saw him awarded with an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters by the University of Nebraska and the Magasaysay Award by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for community leadership.

 

“Kunai pahiro ta lyayeko chu bhanna mildaina…”

 

“It cannot be said that our wireless network has brought a deluge of changes. But people who were illiterate before are now digitally literate. They know what a computer is and it’s purposes, they can use email or talk to their friends and families online. That counts for something.”

 

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In the coming future the community leader’s effort will be concentrated on developing e-learning content in Nepali for the masses, a severely overlooked need that needs to be addressed if one wants to exploit the full potential of wireless networks in rural areas. He has also registered Nepal Abiskar Kendra, a not-for-profit innovation center which will promote innovation and creativity to foster job opportunities right here in Nepal to deter the flow of migrant workers to foreign countries often under less than favorable conditions. The current project that Pun is trying to raise funds for is a 10MW Hydropower plant that intends to sell $6 million worth of electricity a year to NEA.

 

Currently Pun is also administering a six month trial period of e-tags, started in January of this year inside the Annapurna sanctuary. Developed by Pun with the support of Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT), this Tourist tracking system (TTS) which transmits signals to help ACAP monitor a trekker’s progress at all times and coordinate immediate rescue through the location signal, is hoped to be an effective way to ensure safety of all trekkers trekking through the popular Annapurna region.

 

Arguably his greatest attribute is his humility; content in his simplicity, Mahabir never strikes a false note. Most days one can find him going about his work in a pair of chappals and tracksuit bottoms. For all his remarkable achievements and accomplishments, he presents himself as the same guy from Nangi. Unchanged, unfazed by all that has happened since then.

 

Mahabir Pun

 

Epilogue:

The young guy who had been conversing with Pun earlier, signals that he is leaving. The last word he hears are quietly spoken but heard loud and clear, “Tya ramro sanga padhne”, as he walks out with a sheepish grin.

Final question, “How did it feel to win the Magasaysay Award?”

“Kei bhayena. Award le kei huncha? Khusi lageko kura chai yo award sanga alikati paisa aunthyo. Aba yo paisa lagayera kei garna sakincha bhanne bhayo. Tyeti ho…”

“Siddhyo?” the doctor asks abruptly and hence it does. For the son, whose father once had to sell ek tola soon for Rs 180 to pay the school fees, it can be said that he has indeed proven his worth in gold.

 

Mahabir Pun

 

 

 

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Text by: Supriya Rai
Photography: Bikkil Sthapit
Additional Images: Mahabir Pun

 

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