Many of the people I spoke to about Mahabir Pun recognized his charismatic personality but were drawn to him more by his ideals and the methods by which he accomplished his projects. Considering the obstacles of working in a developing country under the veil of a civil war, alongside an unstable government, with uncertain financing and lack of basic resources such as electricity…his meteoric rise to fame was the attraction. But over time many of his early supporters lost their own momentum and could not keep up with Mahabir. He demands no less of everyone around him then he does of himself. But few share his single minded focus…they must return to their own countries, personal interests interceded or his stardom lost it’s shine for them.
The eyes of Nepal watch and wait for Mahabir Pun’s next endeavor.
His critics note Mahabir’s demanding nature coupled with his lack of appreciation is not the only wedge that undermines his working relationships. He is not a team player and his inability to listen to alternate ideas and opinions eventually drives many people away. He will start a project with a team but make changes without consulting anyone. Often those changes are based on an idea and not researched or tested before implementing. The old “throw mud on the wall to see what sticks” approach is still in his arsenal. But many people find this approach wasteful.
For example; several years ago a group of volunteers had planned a solar project for the school in Nangi. They had researched and designed the project months before arrival. I know this team well and they’re skilled at engineering and well versed in working under the extreme Nepali conditions. When they arrived in Nepal and went to pick up their preordered supplies they found Mahabir had changed the order. He had redesigned the project according to what “he thought” it should be. Technically it wasn’t feasible and it undermined the original goal for the project which was to decrease the school’s reliance on the undependable and expensive Nepal electrical power grid. The team was initially bewildered by Mahabir’s behavior, they were hurt by the lack of respect but mostly frustrated by the additional work and cost of straightening out the mess. They had other projects in planning stages but never came back citing their inability to work with Mahabir.
There is no doubt mahabir Pun’s methods are successful. But what works for one person will quickly make others insane. When I asked Mahabir about this criticism of him and his work he simply smiled and said, “Someone else will come along”. He was right. Since the mid 1990s Mahabir Pun has been aided by hundreds of people and dozens of agencies. When someone moves on another fills their place. He is never without support, ideas or dozens of worthwhile and successful projects in the works. He neither says thank you nor does he look back when parting ways. Despite any storm, either political or environmental, he puts his head down and under his own power forges on because he knows at the end of his life he has only himself to commend for success and chastise for failure…because along the way he expects no one but himself to shoulder the weight of his dreams for a better Nepal.
I am ending my story here but will continue to refine the narrative. I will be organizing this blog into book chapters over the next few months so please stop by and have a read. I will be adding more stories and new material. In the meantime you can keep up with Mahabir Pun’s quest for a better Nepal by visiting his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/mahabir.pun?fref=ts
Thank you for your support over the last two years. I could not have continued without the support of my family, friends and colleagues. Your comments and encouragement have kept me motivated and touched my heart. Your opinions matter and are an important part of the complexity of this work. I am especially indebted to Mahabir Pun for his unselfish willingness to answer tough questions and patiently explain my often ignorant inquiries. Safe travels and may each of you find a little bit of Mahabir Pun in yourselves.
In 2011 the World Bank had this to say about renewable energy in Nepal: “A large section of the Nepalese population is deprived of electricity coverage despite huge hydropower potential, particularly in rural areas. About 63 percent of Nepalese households lack access to electricity and depend on oil-based or renewable energy alternatives. The disparity in access is stark, with almost 90 percent of the urban population connected, but less than 30 percent of the rural population. Nepal has about 83,000 MW of economically exploitable resources, but only 650 MW have been developed so far.” This comes from the World Bank study, Power and People: The Benefits of renewable Energy in Nepal. It’s worth reading the entire article but the crux of the matter can be found in the Executive Summary pages xii – xix.
Mahabir Pun at work on his porch in Pokhara, Nepal.
The Nepal government is famous for instability, false starts and sudden stops. Mix in quirky general chaos reserved for kindergarten classes and you have the reasons why Nepal, which has abundant natural water resources has failed it’s people miserably. This Nepali Times article sums up the expected outcome from Mahabir’s initial 2012 meeting with the Prime Minister of Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai. Since developing and presenting his National Innovation Center concept Nepal has transitioned though three new governments. He is again hoping to talk with the newest leaders during the summer.
Mahabir Pun has developed an excellent solution to a complex problem which ties education and development in a novel concept, yet the Nepal government can not move from their narrow view of the world to a global solution. Perhaps it is the magnificent Himalayan mountains that block their view or their own short sightedness as to personal gain, but no matter the reason Mahabir will continue to seek funding and promote his concepts. To quote Mahabir on a recent Facebook post, “This is a crazy idea but a good idea too.”
Join me next week as I wrap up Mahabir Pun’s visions for his country and offer additional insights into the man…the man who many Nepalese think should run for Prime Minister, but for whom this idea holds no sway.
In October 2012 Mahabir Pun and I sat on the balcony at his home in Pokhara as his daughter Jharana and her cousins sat in the stairway watching us. It was day two of the book interview and we were both weary, but Mahabir reflected thoughtfully before he answered my question, “what is an Innovation Center?”
Women in two Myagdi villages make paper beads and fashion into jewelry which they sell to the tourists. This is one example of a small village enterprise which promotes independence and confidence.
I had read the proposal he wrote and gave to the government and shared with his supporters, including myself, a few months before. But I wanted to hear it again after the idea had circulated and he had not only spoken with the Nepal government but had spoken around the world at various venues. Like everything on Mahabir’s list of projects it started with an idea and developed along the way. In a nutshell, Mahabir Pun is trying to scale up what he accomplished in Nangi into a national platform with the National Innovation Center concept.
In Nangi he revolutionized the concept of education for students and parents from merely learning academics to understanding their capacity to change their lives because with knowledge came choices. With choices comes the ability to make significant changes in not only their lives but that of others in their community. He also stepped away from the hand out and donation concept of community development and helped villages build profitable businesses which they run and market either individually or as a community.
The National Innovation Center will be a physical space where Nepalese can bring their ideas for development. It will be a think tank. It will support talented Nepalese from all social strata and educational backgrounds to bring forward their ideas for progressive development in all areas of need such as education and infrastructure. It will generate jobs as ideas are developed and implemented.
Villages along the Community Trek Trail built and maintain the lodges. They provide jobs and income to the community.
But Mahabir is not looking for donors or NGO funding. He is seeking a soft loan of $6 million USD to build a 10 MW hydropower plant in Nepal. The much needed electricity will be sold on the grid and the profits used to run the center, pay back the loan and support the entrepeneurs. He originally went to his government but they did not have the resources so he sought their support as he approached other agencies such as the World Bank or wealthy private individuals such as the Warren Buffets of the world.
Join me next week and find out how The National Innovation Center is progressing and if the Nepal government has lived up to their promises to help Mahabir Pun realize this far reaching social experiment.
In chapter eight I wrote about the volunteers who worked with Mahabir Pun. Volunteers are mostly people who have either read about Mahabir and contacted Himanchal Education Foundation, met him serendipitously or were introduced to him by mutual acquaintances. Most of these volunteers are college students or recent graduates who offer their skills and time to work on the wireless projects or teach at the school in Nangi. This chapter will describe in more detail Mahabir Pun’s interface with the many people, companies and organizations he collaborates with on his projects. It’s difficult to categorize some of the people and projects because there is a cross over between volunteers, employees, students, supporters and colleagues. It’s also difficult because Mahabir can be working on several projects with multiple individuals at any one time…because for Mahabir Pun the goal is the end result and how he gets there is irrelevant.
Typical classroom design in Nangi, Nepal. Students sit at bench tables and the teacher stands by the blackboard at the front of the room. 2007
One of the first foundations to contact Mahabir was the small family run Rallapalli Foundation, managed by husband and wife, Kris and Philine Rallapalli. Kris had read the famous BBC article and contacted Mahabir. Mahabir became the foundation’s representative in Nepal. This working foundation required specific conditions and goals be met before funds were released. Philine explained to me during an interview last year that Mahabir would submit a project plan, provide regular updates along with formal progress and financial reports. She told me she had no trouble getting him to comply with these conditions…which I suspect was not easy for him. His strong suit is not planning or reporting much to the frustration of supporters and collaborators.
Krishna Pun is the Computer Science teacher. The classes are the most interactive in the curriculum. 2007
One of the first projects was funding two teachers from Nangi to attend a computer education course in January 2002. The project funding was approximately $700. This modest project was the building block for the computer classes now being offered to Nangi students. Imagine attending a small rural school…in a developing country…in a roadless village where 95% of the residents don’t have running water or telephones…and learning computer science. The results of Mahabir’s efforts are repeated in similar style all over Nepal…he is a man capable of seeing a need and bending forces until the need is filled.
The second project in the spring of 2002 was a proposal for building the 11th and12th grade classrooms. This was a bigger project and the Rallapalli’s wanted to met Mahabir Pun personally before committing their funds. Join me next week to read the story of their first meeting.