Among the districts in the midhills of central Nepal, Palpa has a special place. It has high literacy, better living standards because of remittances and an outward-looking politically alert population which is open to new ideas.
That is perhaps why Palpa really blossomed after the restoration of democracy in 1990. Freedom opened doors to better roads, drinking water, electricity and infrastructure as politically-aware locals demanded services from their representatives.
Elected village and district leaders launched affirmative action programs, Palpa's health and sanitation initiatives showed immediate results and with roads Palpa's farmers had access to markets and prospered.
But it was in grassroots communications that Palpa emerged in the mid-1990s as a model, first using a public address system, then fledgling cable tv and then community radio stations to encourage public participation. This grassroots communication was vital in turning democracy into a catalyst for development.
The crackdowns on radio after 1 February hit Palpa badly.
Telephone lines here were cut even as King Gyanendra was announcing his takeover in Kathmandu. The army marched into radio stations, two publications and cable networks and shut them down. The radio stations couldn't broadcast anything other than music which hurt advertising revenue.
All this coincided with the Maoists shutting down private schools in Palpa, and a ban on using government funds for development work. It was a double whammy for a district that placed a premium on education. As the blockade closed highways and farmers suffered, students appearing for SLC had to walk all the way to the district headquarters every day for their exams. Palpa's SLC results this year were the worst in history, falling even below the national average.
But every crisis throws up opportunities. Some of us at Radio Madanpokhara, frequency 106.9, came up with a cunning plan: why not use radio for distance education? That way you didn't violate the government's ban on news, while using the medium to compensate for the closure of schools. We launched programs on health, agriculture, gender issues and education. Among the most successful was the Hamro Pathshala program for radio classrooms which was built on radio tuition classes during the SLC exams.
Hamro Pathshala is run by teacher volunteers from three local high schools and airs three days a week for 30 minutes and is targeted at secondary school students and teachers in math, science and English. The aim is to restore Palpa's good performance in next year's SLC exams by making sure that even if schools are closed the student's studies don't suffer.
The interactive classroom targets the rural poor and disadvantaged students, offering on-air tutoring on subjects in which the students suffer the highest failure rates. The station constantly updates programs so they combine instruction, educational information and entertainment.
Hamro Pathshala is effective distance learning for students during times when schools are disrupted due to the conflict. Today the program reaches 27 VDCs and Tansen municipality and there are plans to include 60 schools and 15,000 students.
Gunakar Aryal is an economics teachers who has converted part of his house into a community radio station Radio Madanpokhara of which he is station manager