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Norwegian guru

Thursday, November 19th, 2009
Odd Hoftun with his wife Tullis in Tansen at the half-built hospital he helped set up in 1959.

Odd Hoftun with his wife Tullis in Tansen at the half-built hospital he helped set up in 1959.

After a lifetime devoted to developing Nepal’s indigenous capacity to harness water resources, what does Odd Hoftun have to say about the power cuts in Kathmandu?

The sprightly 82-year-old Norwegian is surprisingly upbeat. “Look, so much political change has take place in Nepal since 1990, it takes time to digest it all and move ahead,” he said this week in Oslo during the launch of his biography Kraftverket (The Hydropowerplant). “You just need a new generation of technocrat politicians to take charge and move forward.”

The book was launched on the 25th anniversary of the Norway-Nepal Association in Oslo last week, following three years of research by author Peter Svalheim. Hoftun went to Nepal as a missionary in 1958 and helped build the Tansen Hospital, which half a century later still stands as a model community medicine centre. Hoftun soon realised that to tap Nepal’s enormous hydropower potential and use it to drive development, indigenous capacity had to be built. He started work at the Butwal Technical Institute and later the Butwal Power Company (BPC), which worked on successively larger hydroelectric projects like Tinau, Andhi Khola and Jhimruk.

Today, BPC is part of a larger consortium of joint Nepali-Norwegian energy companies that built the Khimti project. Norway’s SN Power International is now working on the Tama Kosi 3 power export project in collaboration with India’s Tata Group. The step-by-step growth of engineering capacity is just what Hoftun had envisioned 50 years ago: to make Nepal self-reliant, to spread the risk, and take on ever larger projects as the technical capacity of Nepali engineers improved.

Hoftun in Oslo last week at the launch of his biography. PHOTO: MANOHAR PRADHAN

Hoftun at the launch of his biography last week. PHOTO: MANOHAR PRADHAN

The book, which will soon be translated into English and Nepali, also follows Hoftun’s life in Nepal through the tragic loss of his anthropologist son Martin in a plane crash in Kathmandu in 1992, to the setting up of the research centre, Martin Chautari, in his name. The centre holds regular discussions on the social sciences, media, education and policy issues.

Hoftun was a keen observer of Nepali society, and says that it was evident even when he first arrived that conflict was inevitable. “Nepal was an innocent society in those days, but the injustice, the discrimination of the caste system were glaring. It was the neglect of these issues that ultimately led to the upheavals of the 1990s,” he recalls.

A modest and self-effacing man with a frugal lifestyle, Hoftun has shunned interviews and avoids the media. But, he says, he wanted to publish the book so there would be a record not just of his life but also of his ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy towards technology.

He calls this the ‘bottom-up approach’ of empowering rural areas first. But Hoftun is careful to stress that not all big is bad, and that a country and society have to be ready for big projects and make sure the benefits are distributed equitably while supporting national development. You can have a network of small hydro plants but, he says, for national-level planning and economies of scale there have to be big reservoir projects too.

Hoftun remains supportive even of the much-delayed Melamchi project because, he says, it is a project whose time has come. He agrees with Nepali activists who want the current design to be expanded to include hydropower and irrigation components that will make it a multi-purpose regional scheme, and not just a water supply system for Kathmandu.

He also thinks power exports to India are now a necessity because of Nepal’s trade deficit with that country. “We now need export projects,” he explains, “but we have to build our own industrial base at the same time.” Hoftun’s use of the words ‘we’ and ‘our’ are a giveaway as to his loyalties. That feeling was reciprocated at the book launch at the Nepal-Norway Association function, where he received a standing ovation.

Says the Association’s Marit Bakke: “We wanted to honour Hoftun’s life and work because it is an inspiration for the next generation of Nepalis and Norwegians.”

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5 Responses to “Norwegian guru”

  1. Pradip on Says:

    I heard much about Hoftun while working with a Hydropower company in Kathmandu but did not know that Tansen Hospital and Martin Chautari were his initiation. After knowing all these i must say Hoftun is a true friend of Nepal. If i recall the proverb “help them learn fishing rather than offering a fish” It must be the true reflection on Sir Hoftun’s work in Nepal.

    His every endeavors are successfully running and even growing.

    thank you KD for your effort.

  2. aakash on Says:

    Thx Kunda for your great information about the hotfun, waiting for more such stories from your blog.

  3. aakash on Says:

    Many people are jealous of you, but congratulations with the exposition.

  4. Devendra Pant on Says:

    Kudo to Kundajee for bringing into light the Hoftun stories to the public. As ‘foreigners’ Hoftuns were never foreign to Nepali soil. Indeed, Hoftuns truly loved this country and the people.Their vision of aid was working with and among the grass-root people; helping them to build their own capacity; giving hope and true power to the people rather than aiding in their dependence. Those of us who had luck to have the opportunity to work in BPC or Tansen Hospital as part of our career either as overseers or health assistants know very well the deep cultural and ethical footprints left in our professional life. This is the true legacy of Odd Hoftun! I look forward to read Kraftverket with great enthusiasm!

  5. Andreas Follesdal on Says:

    Here is a review of the biography, printed in _Studies in Nepali History and Society_ vol 15, no 1, June 2010:

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