In Electing Mahabir Pun To Receive The 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award For Community Leadership, The Board Of Trustees Recognizes His Innovative Application Of Wireless Computer Technology In Nepal, Bringing Progress To Remote Mountain Areas By Connecting His Village To The Global Village. (Ramon Magsaysay Award Presentation Committee, 2007)
Tomorrow 85 laptops will be coming in from Japan,” says Dr Mahabir Pun, the Ramon Magsaysay Awardee of 2007. “They have been donated by the International Telecommunication Union.”
And where will they be going? “They are meant for the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ program and this batch will probably be sent to the Mustang region,” says Pun. He hands over his visiting card which announces ‘Donate One Dollar a Month for Wireless Broadband in Rural Nepal’ below his name.
Below that are listed Dr Pun’s various affiliations to many foundations and projects. These include: Program Director, Himanchal Education Foundation; Ashoka Fellow, Ashoka Foundation; Board Member, National Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal; Team Leader, Nepal Wireless Networking Project; Chairman, Institute for Himalayan Conservation, Nepal; Chairman, E-Networking Research and Development; Director, Community Relations, Open Learning Exchange, Nepal; and Vice Chairman, Nepal Research and Education Network. His craggy weather beaten face breaks into a smile as he says, “Yes, I am affiliated to many organizations. I only hope that they do the work they are supposed to do.”
We are having our little chat in a tea shop near the Model Hospital in Exhibition Road, Kathmandu. It is after a pretty long wait that I have been able to catch hold of him. His laconic “I will be leaving for Pokhara tomorrow, so if you want to meet me you will have to come to the Model Hospital” over the phone has brought me here. After a few minutes with him I realize that this hospital is where I should have searched for him earlier since he has a somewhat close relation to it. He points out a six foot tall slim aluminum contraption on its roof. “I put that over there. It’s the link up to the Dolakha region,” he says.
In fact, Dr Pun has linked Dolakha and the hospital via a telemedicine network. But Dolakha is not the only region to be so linked to the hospital. At the moment a team has gone to Gairkhutar village in Trishuli District and Pun is at the Model Hospital to test this new linkage. Other telemedicine linkages already in place are those between the hospital and Hetauda, Pharping, Chatiyan village, Jomsom, and of course, Nangi, Pun’s birthplace in Myagdi District central Nepal. Including the telemedicine linkages, says Pun, “there are 8,000 villages in Nepal with more than 15 million people living in rural areas. So far we have connected 35 villages in seven districts via the net.”
I ask him, “About that ‘One Dollar a Day’ program? How has been the response?”
“Well,” he says, “ we have received about 28,000 dollars till now. Not bad wouldn’t you say? This money is being used to link Jiri District.”
Actually, funds seem to be the least of his concerns now. “Yes,” he agrees. “Money is not a problem. In fact, the Nepal Telecommunication Authority has about one and a quarter billion rupees lying idle in its Rural Telecommunication Development Fund. It is meant to be invested in building a network all over the country. I believe that if this money is spent well, it would be enough for the purpose without having to again as usual look for foreign aid.” He himself is a de facto advisor and tells me that he has recently given a written suggestion about how to utilize this fund. “I have said that most of it should be used to build a network among villages.” While on the subject, he also says, “Even the District Development Committees (DDCs) are willing to chip in. We have already received about 1.8 million rupees each from Makwanpur and Mustang DDCs. I am sure the Village Development Committees will also co-operate by contributing five percent of their income to ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) development.”
Dr Pun is thankful to Model Hospital and to the Nepal Medical College for their involvement. “Dr Saroj Dhital, an old friend, is my compatriot and virtually the coordinator for these telemedicine projects. He is happy at the response and says that it is helpful both for diagnostic purposes as well as for continuous-education purposes of health workers in far flung villages. “Every morning from 8:15 to 9:15, doctors gather at the Model Hospital to network with the linked villages.”
Mahabir Pun is also involved with the Open Learning Exchange Nepal project. “The Department of Education supplies the educational contents, which we then disseminate through our network.” He is the Vice-Chairman of Nepal Research and Education Network. He says that it is meant to develop the sharing of educational material among big colleges and universities worldwide and that about 15 Nepali colleges are already linked to the network.
Currently he is also busy with networking Mustang District. “It will link seven schools and some hospitals right up to Muktinath.” Dr Pun is also collaborating with Thamel.com, a popular Internet business site, on a project on the Annapurna trekking route whereby trekkers can use their credit cards to pay for goods and services. In addition, with help from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Dr Pun has built a weather station on a 3,600 m hill in Myagdi District. “This will help in researching global warming effects,” he says.
“The other weather station we are working on is in Larke (in northern Gorkha District) at an altitude of 2,900 m. It should be completed by January 2010. It is supported by National Trust for Nature Conservation, Nepal, and should also assist airline pilots on the Pokhara-Jomsom route. In fact, we will be having video monitors on the tower which will give pilots a real-time view of weather and other conditions in the area.”
“And yes, we also have a project in the pipeline whereby we will be collaborating with Nabil Bank to provide remittance service in the remote villages,” he adds. Actually, Dr Mahabir Pun has so many projects, both ongoing and planned, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he has forgotten to mention at least another half dozen! And he does look a bit tired. We ask him to stand in front of Model Hospital for a photograph. A few people look at him with some curiosity, probably wondering who he is. This is because he is so completely unassuming and dressed so carelessly. Perhaps that’s because he has so little time for such mundane things.
He is going to Pokhara the next day, he says, and I feel happy for him that he has managed to take some time from his extremely busy schedule to spend some days with his wife and two daughters who live there. His parents live in Chitwan along with his sister. Mahabir Pun was born in Nangi, in Myagdi District; it’s a village for which he naturally holds a very special part in his heart. He has set up the Himanchal Educational Foundation to specifically support education and development projects in his birthplace. Naturally, he is a hero to his hometown folks as much as he is a hero to the nation, having earned well deserved recognition from international organizations.
He was elected an Ashoka Fellow by the Ashoka Foundation, USA, in 2002, and the Overall Social Innovations Award for 2004 awarded by the Global Ideas Bank of the UK. The University of Nebraska, from where he did his higher studies, invited him for their winter commencement speech (a high honor indeed!) in December 2007, when he was also conferred with an honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters. But his biggest moment was undoubtedly when he won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award 2007 for Community Leadership from Asia’s esteemed Ramon Magsaysay Foundation.
Keeping in mind the high tempo of his many activities, possible only because of his total commitment, one can rest assured that Mahabir Pun is well in line to receive many more awards both nationally and internationally. At the same time, knowing the nature of the man, one shouldn’t be surprised to know that the pleasure he gets when teleconferencing with villagers in his hometown of Nangi holds more value to him than do awards.
Note: Dr Mahabir Pun speaks about his childhood days and the years following in a personal article on the Internet at www.himanchal.org/school-mahabir-pun.html