Nepali Times
State Of The State
An appropriate time for technology


Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal's much-discussed threat to go back to the jungles was an expression of his frustration rather than a true intent to wage war again. Despite pretensions of being in charge, he has taken over three months to realise that a prime minister in a parliamentary system is only first among equals, not the boss. The premier in a coalition government is even less of a boss, his role is limited to being a facilitator.

Dahal's problems begin with his own party members. Few Maoist nominees in the government realise what the limits of their powers are. And their followers still think they can arm-twist and threaten perceived enemies at will.

The UML has packed the cabinet with congenital demagogues. Whether Jhalnath Khanal has done it on purpose to undermine the Maoist-led government or whether it's just his way of hitting back at party rival Madhab Kumar Nepal is unclear. What is obvious, is that none of the ehmaleys in the government have brought the party any glory.

Ministers of smaller parties have actually done better. Not everyone needs to endorse the way Upendra Yadav has recalled newly appointed ambassadors from India and the US, but at least he has succeeded in restoring the pride of professional cadres in the foreign ministry. One need not agree with the ethnic politics of Jayprakash Gupta, Bijay Gachhedar or Renu Yadav to appreciate the way they have been trying to get their ministries to start working again in the face of the violent antics of the YCL and YF and the militant wing of the MJF.

Ganesh Shah, the minister for science, technology and environment, represents a minor faction of the leftwing. He got a cabinet berth in the coalition in recognition of his steadfast loyalty to his CPN (United).

Shah is an engineer and is supposed to know a bit about what he is expected to do. Unfortunately, even he can't resist wearing outsized badges and cutting ribbons and lighting inaugural lamps. When he is free from these inanities, he flies abroad to attend seminars where Nepal can neither contribute nor gain anything. A ministership transforms even a creative individual like Shah into a lab mouse going round and round in his wheel. But to his credit, he is at least consulting fellow-engineer Baburam Gurung about appropriate technologies that could improve lives of rural Nepalis.

Gurung was trained in Czechoslovakia and his suggestions were simple: stop chasing the pot of gold at the end of the Information Technology rainbow and concentrate on simple things that will change lives.

The humble Nepali chulo has remained unchanged for millennia even though it wasted firewood. Improved chulos that are more energy efficient and don't belch out smoke have been available for decades. But the penetration of smokeless chulos in rural Nepal is negligible. We need to build on the improved chulo so that it takes new fuels like husk, brickettes and dung cakes and get people to use them.

Pit latrines were introduced in Tarai back in the sixties. Half a century later, villagers are still forced to defecate publically. During the rains in the hills and floods in Tarai, typhoid and infections are the result. Isn't it possible to devise a technological solution for this problem? If we can build ultralights and if Nepali software engineers are contributing to Silicon Valley, improved loos shouldn't be out of our grasp.

Appropriate technology has become a forgotten expression, but there is no other way to make living in rural Nepal a little more bearable for all those who have neither the wish nor the means to migrate to overcrowded cities. Nepal needs better chulos.

The information superhighway can wait.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)