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Remembering not to forget Toni Hagen

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

As he looks down at another nearly lost half-decade of development in Nepal, Toni Hagen
must be shaking his head

Swiss geologist-turned-development guru first came to Nepal in 1950, travelled 14,000 km criss-crossing Nepal on foot over 12 years, and produced books and charted out Nepal’s development pathways. Just about everything he said we should do, we didn’t. Everything he said we shouldn’t do, we did.

Among the books Hagen wrote, the multiple editions of ‘Nepal’, are still a classic – both as a geography text book of Nepal and a sustainable development blueprint for Nepal. Ten years before he died in 2003, Hagen had started working on another book, Decentralisation and Development, to record the lessons learnt from his long acquaintance with Nepal’s march to modernity and to compare it with Switzerland.

After his death, Hagen’s daughter Karin and other friends put the book together, putting together half-finished chapters. Harka Gurung gave it a final edit and wrote a preface before he himself was killed in the tragic helicopter crash in Ghunsa in 2006. Because it has gone through multiple hands, the book is understandably disjointed. It reminds one of Hagen’s own stream of consciousness conversations towards the end of his life, as he tried to leave behind as much wisdom as possible.

Hagen came to Nepal 62 years ago because it was felt landlocked and mountainous Nepal had a lot in common with Switzerland, and could be made in its image. Since then, Nepal’s leaders, kings, kangresis and krantikaris
have all aspired to “turn Nepal into Switzerland”. Hagen’s book is not about how mould Nepal into a Switzerland, but to learn lessons from Nepal’s own mal-development and look at how democracy, federalism have delivered decentralised development in Switzerland.

In his preface, Gurung points to the little-known fact that the first Nepalis to visit Switzerland were ‘Gurkhas’ who acted as guides to British mountaineering expeditions in the Alps in the late 19th century, and after
whom Piz Gurkha and Gurkha Pass were named (and later renamed by the Swiss because it smacked of ‘colonialism’). What an irony that 50 years later, the tables were finally turned, and the Swiss arrived on Kangchenjunga to start climbing in the Himalaya.

Toni Hagen made a detailed geological map of Nepal, plotted sites for hydropower projects like Kulekhani and the Karnali Bend, proposed a east-west electric train artery, ropeways for mountain transport, and
advocated rural eco-tourism. He was against the World Bank’s paradigm that “development follows roads”, arguing instead that road should follow development, and they should create maximum employment during their construction, be integrated to improved agriculture production. Wonder what Hagen would have thought of the mindless bulldozer roads that now scar the mountains through which he walked.

The geologist soon found the development needs of Nepalis so overwhelming and urgent, he wrote: ‘I found the people more important than the rocks.’ Hagen’s book continues with his earlier works to deal mainly with transportation, hydropower and decentralised planning. It is E F Schumacher’s small-is-beautiful approachthat leads him to advocate small run-of-the-river hydropower schemes, green roads, community-managed infrastructure and eco-tourism. We have ignored much of his advice.

But not everything has gone wrong. Hagen was proud of the success that Nepal’s community forestry program achieved, he would have approved of the small hydro-power projects for rural electrification, local trail bridges, the green roads being built under the Rural Access program, the village homestay tourism now being promoted in Lamjung, Dolakha and Rasuwa. He was an ardent advocate of community development through grassroots democracy.

But on balance, Nepal’s modern leaders have not been very smart. Not even as smart as Chandra Sumshere, who was way ahead of his time when he built a cargo ropeway to service Kathmandu in the 1920s. Hagen’s book has a photograph taken in 1959 with Jawaharlal Nehru, B P Koirala and himself during the Indian leader’s visit to Nepal. Nehru doesn’t look very happy, and one has to read M P Koirala’s memoir, ‘A Role in Revolution’ to speculate why.

Nehru repeatedly warned BP’s brother and predecessor, MP, in long handwritten letters about letting in foreign experts like Hagen, saying they could not be trusted. One finds out in ‘Decentralisation and Democracy’ that after Swiss experts advised tunneling under Chandragiri near Pharping and building a shortcut to the plains via Kulekhani where a dam would be built, the Indians opposed it. Instead, they pushed through the circuitous Tribhuvan Highway that was ten times longer. Needless to say, 60 years later the ‘fast track’ from Kathmandu to the plains still hasn’t been built.

Decentralization and Development:
The Role of Democratic Principles
Toni Hagen
Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 2012
374 pages
Rs 1,000

Read also:

A road runs through it, # 391

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2 Responses to “Remembering not to forget Toni Hagen”

  1. vija on Says:

    When the truth is twisted by the Government of this present Nepal and when newspapers and political leaders who must see the cunning truths use innosence of uneducated people to push through projects like West Seti, let’s remember Toni Hogen.Has anything changed Mr.Dixit?If newspapers like yours do not dare to speak up,what about others.The truth is very simple and if we can not speak up,no words can describe the reality as it is.Censorship?What about simply making access to documents signed by the governments for people to read and decide,only that much.Not the translations of politicians.
    Unbelievable !
    If this is true what the article writes,as we haven’t actually seen what the Memorandum looks like and secondly,recomendations by the Commitee are empty words without The Plan of Multipurpose Project and proper financial calculations and safety management and considerations involving the environment ,as we all have come to know,why Australian investors couldn’t go ahead,as it involved much more money than originally planned .But the only reason to not go ahead was ChinaTGC wanted the project badly enough to waste a decade .(multipurpose?????????????????) People might be moved as they do not have a say and those who we hoped would be serious about the work are talking only about Political concensus for once,so it is a political project not an economical decision as economics must certainly be accurate in calculations but as you see,government newspaper Himalayan Times etc and Nepali Times differ in the culculations and the precise economical calculations so no wonder people have turned away as whereever one goes,the truth is twisted according to politics.
    And lastly,25+14=39+51=90.Who would own the left 10 % ?Those who agreed on giving the project green light ,as usual just this time it is openly announced ,10 % for undertable.And by the way,it is only commitees suggestions,not the acceptance of China TGC and As the one of the articles states,green is the colour of the money too.Unbelievalble

  2. L Wolfe on Says:

    Indigenous people of Nepal do not want to involve in country-destroying politics. They just want a peaceful country and a healthier life. Our country is so beautiful, with rich resources including the strength, will power, and determination of our people. Let us not tear down, but build up. Let us unite indigenous people in democracy for the good of the whole country and our blessed Nepal. Those who want to solve our problems with violence, have no care for our country and do not want what is best for the good people in it. They have no business pretending they want to run a healthy country. They are motivated by selfish reasons.

    We do not need China or India to run our country; our identity, uniqueness, culture and independence will be lost and long forgotten. Please, let us unite in peace for the goodness and prosperity of our country. We want to maintain uniqueness of our country and run it ourselves to maintain our culture. We should take a tip from the U.S.; if you are not born in the country, you are not allowed to run it. We welcome other cultures, but they will not have the power to run our country to the benefit of their’s.

    And, let’s stop selling our water to other countries so we have to bow down to them for hydro-generation.. Now that new National identity cards are being issued, it is an appropriate time to close our border with India so we can regulate the number and identity of people settling on our land. Where else can you find open border between two countries where people can overpopulate an area without restriction even though the country cannot even feed, water, house, nourish and provide health care for those currently residing in it? We are acting like a sitting duck to be used and abused at will and allowing over-population of our country before we have sufficient infrastructure in place.

    In Nepal, we can live in peace and welcome others who appreciate the beauty of our land and people, and work within our culture to preserve and respect it. Please spread the word throughout your families, communities, and villages.

    Also, this is off-topic, but I must suggest that we all slow down on the roads, stay in our own lane, or on our side of the road. And, if you are drinking alcohol, don’t plan to drive on our roads. Have someone else drive for you, or walk home, or stay home and drink. It is a known fact, that after even a bit of alcohol your judgement is clouded and with each successive drink, your judgment diminishes more and more. There are far too many senseless deaths on our roadways. Do not add to our roadway casualties by making bad decisions and exercising poor judgement. Don’t drink and drive. Think before you drink.

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