Rural Nepal goes mobile-global

Only 18% of people in the developing world have access to the Internet, but more than 50% owned a mobile phone handset at the end of 2009 (a number which has more than doubled since 2005), according to the International Telecommunication Union. ―The Economist, October 30, 2010

It’s true. The mobile phone is ubiquitous in the developing world, and omnipresent in Nepal. What does it mean for social relations and the economy, for farmers, shop keepers, writers, researchers and (not least) the postal system?

When I arrived late one afternoon in remote Sirkot village of Ilam District after a stiff climb, I learned that the persons our research team needed to interview lived an hour’s walk back down the mountain. “Not to worry,” a Nokia wielding villager said. “I’ll phone. They’ll come up.” Everyone seems to have a mobile phone―men, women, children, farmers, school teachers, students, shopkeepers, guides and porters―in constant use, spreading news, coordinating work schedules, chatting with neighbors and family, negotiating market prices, taking orders, setting up meetings, making advance reservations...

Our Sirkot hosts told us that their son was off working in the Gulf, one of Nepal’s thousands of young remittance men. “Does he write often?” I asked. “No,” they said. Then his mother put her hand up to her ear and extended her thumb and little finger in the universal sign of a mobile phone call. “He phones. It’s hot there, he says, and he misses Nepali food, dal-bhat.”

Rural Nepal now has roads, electricity, toilets and piped water, but mobile phones are most indicative of the ‘new Nepal’, linking the nation to the rest of the world.

I remember the first telephone land line across the central hills in the 1960s, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Telecommunications to my tiny village west of Gorkha was over an archaic system using vintage wall-phones with ringer cranks, powered by two big dry cell batteries. Messages came and went by text only, laboriously relayed orally, letter by letter through 14 stations, one to the next. The receiver stations were located every half day’s walk along the historic postal trail, the ‘hulaki bato’. With so many opportunities for error, you can imagine the jumbled correspondence we sometimes received. Garbled, like the end of the children’s game of ‘Telephone’.

Dharma, our friendly telephone-wallah, had a bushy handlebar moustache, bright twinkling eyes on a wrinkled face, and a broad smile. He was happy to pass messages to us. We lived next to his office and we always knew when one arrived. He’d repeat each English letter, one after the other so loudly that the last operator and half the district could hear. Like this: “Himal ko ‘etch’!” (H). “Europe ko ‘eee’!” (E). “London ko ‘ell’!” (L); twice. And “Ooyal [oil] ko ‘ohh’!” (O). “HELLO”~!

Phone calls through the international exchange at Kathmandu were not much better―a lot of shouting going out (as if volume enhanced transmission), and garbled replies coming in. I phoned America only once then, but gave up when what I heard back sounded like frog croaks. Those were the days, pre-globalization!

My recent visit to Sirkot in Ilam was on a socio-economic survey for the Nepal Electrical Authority (NEA) Kabeli Corridor 132 kv Transmission Line Project, from Tehrathum south through Panchthar and Ilam to Jhapa District. We were 10 researchers spread out across the hills, keeping track of each day’s progress by (you guessed it) mobile phone. Hand held electronic telecommunication is transforming Nepal in ways not dreamed of just a few years ago.

Rural Nepal has gone mobile-global. All those calls from the Gulf, to the village down the hill, or for checking current market prices are changing local social and economic relations. And where there’s no electricity yet there are solar-powered phone chargers.

What will this do to the ‘hulak’, the postal system? Will letter-writing go out of style? Do mobile phones spell the end to postage stamps and spilled ink?

 Keep on calling!

The author is a freelance writer and contributing editor to ECS Nepal. He has a mobile phone of course, but don’t call: he’s currently in America where he can be contacted by email at The hydropower research described was conducted for the NEA by Nepal Environmental & Scientific Services (NESS) (P) Ltd.