Nepali Times
Torn Hagen's Nepal


Nepal\'s population was just eight million. There were no motorable roads to Kathmandu, although there were cars in the Valley that had been carried over the passes and they ran on petrol that had also been brought on porter back. The char kose jhari jungles in the tarai were still intact, and Mt Everest was yet to be climbed.

In October 1950, when Toni Hagen first arrived in Nepal as part of a Swiss technical aid group (his larger work in Nepal was as a UN expert), the country had a bright future ahead of it. Hydropower and tourism, properly utilised, could make the country prosper. In fact, many said Nepal could be Asia\'s Switzerland.
Things have not quite turned out that way. Nepal\'s population is now 23 million, the country has one of the worst development parameters in Asia, despite some progress hydropower has hot been a bonanza, and tourism is stagnant because of muddled policy.

Kathmandu Valley, which, in 1950 was one of those idyllic faraway places full of temples, stupas and clean air, has changed into a grotesque caricature of Third World urban blight. But if you were expecting Toni Hagen to be full of nostalgia for Nepal\'s unspoilt past, you\'re in for a surprise. He has his sights firmly on Nepal\'s future, and contrary to the fashionable cynicism among Nepalis about their own country, Hagen is full of hope.

modernisation and change in Nepal. He first walked into Kathmandu Valley during the sunset years of the Rana regime, was here during Nepal\'s first experiments with democracy in 1960, saw the Panchayat years and the restoration of democracy in 1990. He had personal friendships with King Mahendra, B.P. Koirala, Ganesh Man Singh and Man Mohan Adhikari. He meets King Birendra almost even\' time he is in Nepal (and that is every few months), and has a host of Nepali friends.

"Nepal has not done badly compared to some of the countries in South America and the former Soviet Union," he says. "Democracy needs nurturing and time, it needs hard work and patience to strike roots. Yes, the transition is messy, but it is messy everywhere. Here it has been just ten years."

In travels through his beloved rural Nepal, Hagen is heartened by the difference that democracy is making. "It has to start at the grassroots, participation of people at all levels is vital for developing a democratic culture. I would say Nepal needs patience, needs time and it cannot be dictated. Democracy cannot be implemented through bloodshed and revolution."

Hagen is a great believer in pluralism, and he thinks it is only democracy that is ultimately going to make people tolerant of diversity. With its "tremendous ethnic diversity in such a narrow physical space, Nepal has actually managed quite well to allow many Hagen angry is to hear foreign experts say that Nepal is not mature enough for democracy. "It is a very arrogant comment because during the last elections everybody thought the extreme wings-either right or left- would win. But Nepalis very wisely chose the middle way which shows great democratic maturity."

At a sprightly 83, Toni Hagen still exudes the same charm, energy and passion that his friends remember he had when he first came to Nepal nearly 50 years ago. He is back in Kathmandu to complete a docudrama on his life, Nepal: A Love Story, which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of his first arrival in Nepal.

Hagen\'s book, Nepal: A Kingdom in the Himalaya, is a . classic that has gone into four editions since it was first published in 1961. The updated fourth edition brings readers up to date with the problems of modern Nepal, contrasting it sharply with how they could have been avoided if the strategies of the 1950s had been followed.

In 1981, when his new book on the ecology and economic problems of Nepal came out Hagen got a message from the royal palace that King Birendra on his way back from an official visit to Washington was stopping in Switzerland and would like to see him. "We talked the whole morning," Hagen recalls. "His Majesty had read my book very carefully. He asked \'Isn\'t it too late for Nepal?\' I said \'No. It\'s late, but never too late.\' "

Hagen says he is very grateful to King Birendra for giving him the freedom to be critical. "I use my influence wherever to encourage young Nepalis to fight centralisation, knowing the king is behind them. I believe in him."

Although he had worked in Nepal for almost a decade, Toni Hagen\'s first involvement in Kathmandu itself- was in taking care of Tibetan refugees who were pouring into Nepal in the mid-1950s from across the Himalaya. He set up the refugee enclave in Jawalakhel and helped establish carpet-weaving units to provide refugees with employment. Little did he know then that the carpet industry would emerge as one of Nepal\'s major exports. Hagen credits both King Mahendra and B.P. Koirala for having the moral courage to stand up to China in accepting the refugees with open arms.

As a geologist, Toni Hagen\'s passion is the Himalaya and exploring the orogenies that threw up rocks formed at the bottom or the ocean to nearly nine km up in the sky. "During my schooldays when my father used to take me to around the Alps, I dreamt of being near to the Himalaya. I believe that it was my karma that brought me here," he says.

Hagen was perhaps Nepal\'s first real trekker, and there is no record of anyone who has walked as much through Nepal as he has: more than i4.000 km up and down the mountains and tarai right through the decade of 1950s. His early colour photographs of Nepal\'s mountains, peoples, rivers, festivals and towns are an iconographic treasure. Many of the pictures are in the book Nepal-including the famous centrefold of Pokhara Valley with the Annapurnas in the background. Countless oil-on-canvas imitations of this picture is sold to tourists to this day even though Pokhara has changed beyond recognition.

"As I went around looking at rocks, I found that the people, the culture and the history as fascinating," Hagen recalls. He remembers very well how King Mahendra reacted to a small slide show he had organised for the royal family in the early 1960s. Hagen\'s presentation showed it all: people crossed wild rivers without bridges, villages with no schools or health posts, dangerous mountain trials and the daily struggle for survival of Nepalis. Says Hagen: "After the slide show, there was a long silence. Then the king finally said, \'Now the time has come. I have to see my country myself.

Blunt and outspoken, Toni Hagen speaks his mind. His pronouncements on Arun III earned him the ire of donor agencies in Kathmandu. But he is glad that the project was scrapped because it allowed the development of medium-scale and small hydro projects. He sees Nepal\'s future only happening through decentralised planning and grassroots participation through democracy.

Hagen is here this time to set up the Toni Hagen Foundation too. The objective of the Foundation is to work towards promote an understanding of Himalayan geography, economy, ethnography and culture among the people of the Himalaya. The Foundation will also support efforts to expand the knowledge base and target younger Nepalis. Its very first activity is the translation of his own book Nepal into Nepali. Toni Hagen is hopeful that the translation will help young Nepali professionals see their country\'s problems in historical and multi disciplinary perspective. "I believe it is the younger generation of Nepal is that are the hope torn Nepal."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)