Nepali Times
How large is Nepl?


Even if this country were to be divided among all Nepalis
Of the ten million pieces
One would be on which my hut would stand.

The late Bhupi Sherchan wrote this 33 years ago. A decade later I had the fortune of meeting Bhupi at the Royal Nepal Academy. He had become a member representing the arts, while I was there from the sciences. During our meetings. Bhupi and I began a casual discussion about what the share of each Nepali would be if the country were to be actually divided up among all its people.
As the scientist among the two, it was left to me to calculate exactly how much land would fall in Bhupi\'s share. But first, I had to find out how big Nepal actually is. I assumed someone must have carried out some kind of measurement, and began looking around. My attention was drawn to an essay by Laxmi Prasad Devkota called "Ke Nepal Saano Chba? (Is Nepal Small?)". I read it thoroughly but I didn\'t come across a single figure, leave alone any statistical data. Devkota was a poet, after all, and he saw Nepal as a great country. He wrote:
"... why shouldn\'t I call Nepal great? Its greatness is in the breath of the Himalaya, in the blueness of the hills, in nature\'s generosity... "

Devkota\'s definition of Nepal\'s greatness cannot fit into the parameters of government statistics. The official area of Nepal is said to be 147,181 square kilometres, a figure arrived at by multiplying the length and breadth of the country. What has, however, not been taken into consideration are the hills and mountains that have created the country\'s third dimension-height. In that sense, one can argue that Nepal has not been truly measured. The country should be measured in cubic metres for it is a country of three dimensions.

In his book Altitude Geography of Nepal, geographer Ram Kumar Pandey raises interesting questions about the country\'s mountainous terrain and the peculiar political, social, economic, and development challenges caused by it. If not through physical measurement, the challenge to Nepal\'s geographers and experts is to at least theoretically find out what how big the country is in all its aspects. And until such a time as it is not known, the only answer to "How big is Nepal?" will remain "Nepal is great." Quiz masters should either give this answer a perfect ten, or not ask it at all. If it has to be asked, the correct question is "What is the area covered by the base of the country?" The answer to that is 147,181 sq km. But to say that the area of Nepal is 147,181 sq km is like saying that the ground area covered by a house represents how much space the entire house has.

A person standing upright requires more space than that covered by his two feet for her cremation. A live person\'s whole dimension is not limited to the two feet she stands on. It is based on her entire size. If we look at Nepal\'s size it consists of a profusion of mighty mountains right across the country. We have Saipal, Everest, Dhaualgiri. Then there are others-Annapurna, Gangapurna, Kanjiroba and Kangchendzonga. The tops of still more peaks-Manaslu, Makalu, and Gaurishankar are spread across the sky. The Mahabharat range rises from Mahakali in the west to Mechi in the east, and so too does the Chure range stretch across the country.

If these hills and mountains were put under a rolling pin and flattened out like rotis, Nepal would be huge. The roti would stretch from Sri Lanka to Lhasa, it would cover Kabul and Kashmir and spread across Myanmar and Malaysia. Only then, would it be possible to find out how much land Bhupi Sherchan would be entitled to during a national division of property.

Yet, government statistics based on incomplete information and have been drilled into the public brain. The statistics department talks of the population density of every square kilometre. These numbers are not based on facts but on the department\'s need to come up with numbers to quote.

Let\'s take another example, the one about the famous slogan "Hariyo ban Nepal ko dhan", or "Green forests are Nepal\'s wealth". Community forestry has resulted in an increase in Nepal\'s forest cover. Both Toni Hagen and the Professor Dobromez, individuals who have travelled widely around the country, publicly acknowledge that Nepal\'s forests have staged a comeback in the last two decades. Naturally, the government becomes pleased since it is another yardstick to measure Nepal\'s progress. But when the government statistics are released, we once again see that forest area in the mountains has gone down.

Even without actual data on Nepal\'s surface area, figures on forest area are released. Forest officials and community forest groups get together to measure forests, and we hear of or read about various hand-over ceremonies. The size of the forest cover, however, is based on satellite pictures taken from space or by aeroplanes from the sky. Such pictures do not take into account the surface area of Nepal\'s mountains, and only calculate the base area. Because of this forest cover is shown to be going down. Until a cadastral survey of the forest area itself is conducted, it will not be possible to get the actual data relating to forest cover. Similarly, until Nepal\'s surface area is measured as length x breadth x height, the question to "How big is Nepal?" will remain unanswered.
(The writer is a life member of the Royal Nepal Academy.)
Adapted from Himal Khabarpatrika 2-31 October, 2000.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)