Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A tale of two men

Zurich Airport

I was waiting for a connecting flight to Geneva. Being first time in Europe and that also in the German dominant city, I was keeping mum. I was just waiting on a bench and letting the time tick by.

The aroma from Starbucks next door was challenging my craving for a hot cup of capuccino. I suppressed the urge. Then a man grabbing a huge Subway sandwich, munching in between, hurriedly passed by my side. Although I had resisted the desire to have a capuccino I could not stop myself from fetching a yummy sandwich for my tummy.

As I was gobbling the piece of newly-found amusement, a young man in his early twenties approached me. He was neither tall nor short, was strongly built and looked smart in his blue uniform. "Excuse me, Sir," he initiated the conversation. "Are you a Nepali?"   

"Yes," was my terse reply.

"Oho dai, what a relief. I met a Nepali after six months. I am from Ramechhap." Within seconds, he had discarded the robes of formality and addressed me as an elder brother. Finding him in a new city was a relief to me as well. 

"It's so nice to meet with you in a foreign land, are you studying here?" I asked the young man. He was well-mannered and humble and his concern for a fellow countryman drew my interest towards him.   

He had come to Switzerland to work. He had completed his Bachelor's in the neighbouring country (I forgot the country's name) and was working for a private company in the airport. Switzerland was the best place to work in whole of Europe, he said. The companies were concerned about employee security and welfare. And he was happy to be there, though being thousands of miles away from his home. 

He briefed me about the dos and don'ts, advised me on the rules and regulations, and accompanied me to the boarding area. On the elevator, he asked about the political turn of events in Nepal. He was enthusiastic about the peace accord signed by the rebel Maoist leaders. "Now I wish our country will also be like Switzerland," he said. "I hear they are talking about federalism and inclusion. They should learn from Switzerland. In spite of being a land-locked country and smaller than Nepal, we have 26 cantons (federal states) here. The poor cantons get support from the Confederation (central state)."

I was amazed by his knowledge on the issues of federalism, ethnicity and inclusion. He was talking about a society which takes care of both equality and equity. Silently I saluted his opinions and wished the decision makers also think on the same line. "Well said bhai, Nepal should follow Switzerland," I advised, "Why don't you write Op-Eds in some leading dailies in Nepal?"

But the devil's advocate inside me was sarcastic. Might be he was saying that because he belonged to the Tamang community which was marginalised and discriminated. I was thinking about the worst examples of Nigeria where federalism has done more damage than good. My Kathmandu-centric thinking, upbringing with elites, and belief on capability (ability) and identity were taking toll on the poor guy's opinion on federalism and inclusion.          

"Utopia is what Maoists, indigenous peoples and Madhesis are talking about," I quipped. "It was so nice to meet you. Thanks for your guidance to get to Geneva."

"I hope Nepal will show the world how Utopian society can be built," he was shouting with a gleam in his eyes as I proceeded towards the boarding area.

Zurich Railway Station

I had survived the first snowstorm of the season. Never had been the trains delayed. Thanks to the heavy snow, most of the trains had to halt and take to alternative routes. And I was the one to benefit. I got to travel through many cities in Switzerland though the landscape was draped in white. I abandoned the direct train from Geneva to Zurich and followed a kind lady who volunteered to help me find the alternative trains and routes. The announcement made in the train was in German and I wasn't able to get anything, so I had to depend on her.

Finally I made to the Zurich Railway Station, kept the luggage in the locker and waited for my college friend.  

It was Friday evening and the streets were full of fervour and merriment. The snowstorm hadn't arrived in that part of Switzerland. The weather was chillingly cold and the people were in the mood to party till the arrival of the first snowstorm.

A young man had sprayed cans of silver paint on him and was entertaining the crowd. Nearby a group of youngsters was rolling tobacco and marijuana. A man was strumming a guitar and singing from the depth of his heart. 

I was amusing myself and trying to mix with the crowd. Then from nowhere, a well-dressed man, probably in his early fifties, inebriated and stuttering, came towards me. Like the young man I had met in the Zurich Airport, he enquired, "Are you a Nepali?"

I said, "Yes."

I had expected the same warmth as that of the young man. But with him it was just the opposite. Knowing that I was a Nepali, his expression turned cynical. "So, how did you manage to enter?" he posed the question with a smirk on his face. "What was your excuse to apply for the visa?"

I was irritated by the man's sneering and domineering attitude. However, I remained polite. "I had come here for an induction course and am leaving tomorrow for Paris," I clarified. "From there I shall leave for my country. I have no intentions to overstay in this country."        
"Everybody says the same," he sneered. "They come here as academicians, students, sportsmen, artists, throw their passports in those dustbins," he was pointing to two huge garbage cans, "And stay here illegally, working in restaurants owned by Indians."

I was horrified to hear the details. I tried to convince him that I was hell-bent sure that I would return back to Nepal. But he was adamant on his conviction. He even proposed to provide me work in one of the Indian restaurants if I throw away my passport down the gutter.

I have the gut feeling that with age a man mellows. He turns into a sensible fellow, with all sorts of experiences and sufferings. I took him as an exception. Probably his frustration and anger was suppressing the good man inside him.

I was keeping mum, just listening to his murmurings. It was the perfect situation to practise "selective hearing". Seeing me silent he said, "See gentleman, you need money to survive and I bet you won't be able to earn enough in Nepal." He then narrated his own story. He was a Director in one of the well-known INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisation) in Nepal. What he used to earn was enough for a luxurious life. However, it was just the salary. His peers in the government having lesser salaries had built houses in the capital, but he was still living in a rented flat. Likewise, his classmates settled in the USA and Australia had earned enough to build houses in Kathmandu and start businesses of their own. So the only thing he could do was to throw the passport while he was in Switzerland to attend a workshop.  

"Now I have four houses in Central Kathmandu," he said triumphantly. "My children attend top-rung schools, my family members are happy and I feel that I have done my part of the job."

The only unhappy soul in his family was he himself. It appeared so to me. He was drunk, the knot of his tie was dangling near the third button of the shirt, his pants had dark smudges near his knees and his coat was in shambles.

He again babbled, "Seems you are one of those idiots who want to stay in Nepal." He solemnly advised me, "Listen, if you want to be a successful man, think about yourself first then think about your family, community and country." According to him, Nepal is a country doomed to fail.

As I was gathering facts in my mind to counter his claims, I could see my friend coming at a distance. He was working in Zurich at that time and had promised to take me around the city. "Thank you for your suggestions dai," I said, in an attempt to conclude the conversation. "Though you are right somewhere, I can't follow it. Good luck with your earnings." I waved to my friend and ran towards him.

We had met after nine years. We hugged each other and started throwing questions at each other to quell our curiosities. As we mixed in the crowd, the inebriated man was waving to me and shouting, "I am damn sure you will join me, sooner or later."  

That night we partied until dawn. It started snowing from early morning. I bade farewell to my dear friend and boarded the train to Paris. Mine was a window seat, so I got glued to the passing panorama. The white blanket of snow was a newfound amusement for me.

The TGV was gliding at a breakneck pace. The blanket of snow in the surrounding was getting thicker and thicker. And in the void of the whiteness, I was comparing the souls of the two men. One was like the white snow, pure, beautiful and welcoming. Another was like the big buildings piercing out of the white blanket of snow, like sharp nails pointing to the sky.             

Monday, 11 November 2013

Cell of change

Republished from The Kathmandu Post
(c) The Kathmandu Post

Mobile technology has greatly aided farmers in India; Nepal should emulate such practices

The hills of Almora in Uttarakhand of neighbouring India resemble the landscape in Nepal. The culture and way of life of the people are similar too. However, farmers there are a little more fortunate than Nepali farmers. They can obtain information on market prices, weather conditions, agricultural policy news, and tips on farming cycles via short message service (SMS) from Reuters Market Light (RML). The RML service is delivered in the form of a simple SMS that fits into the daily workflow of the farmer in his/her preferred language. Information can be obtained on 450 crop varieties in eight different languages. 

Mobile power
A woman hidden behind a veil narrated  to me her experience with mobile technology. She had laid out the whole lot of crop to be dried out in the sun. It was a sunny day and there was no sign of rain in the horizon. Then she received an SMS from RML. Being illiterate, she ran to her daughter who read it out. The SMS predicted rain.

All at once, she collected her crop and stored it in a safe place. It rained just after that but her crop was safe. A lean farmer standing next to her shared a similar experience. He was ready to spray pesticide on his standing crop of vegetables. But he changed his mind after receiving an SMS notifying him of a light shower. It saved both time and money.

Such is the power of information. And it is a blessing when it comes to a mobile set worth a few thousand rupees and in your preferred language. In Uttarakhand, the RML services are free of charge, sponsored by the Department of Telecommunication and the German development agency, GIZ. In other parts of India, RML services can be availed of through a paid subscription. This service is being used by over 1.2 million farmers in 50,000 villages across 17 states of India. Even the information can be personalised based on the type of crop, region of the crop, region of the country and local language. This enables farmers to make informed decisions, reduce waste and maximise their profits.

Farmers are well informed about the prices of their produce in two nearby markets. It helps them sell their products at a fair price to buyers. The service also has a provision of flashing the name and mobile number of a farmer or a trader who wants to sell or buy the commodities. The seller and buyer can then negotiate with each other for an agreeable price.

Likewise, RML flashes the name and contact number of successful farmers periodically. The farmers end up receiving thousands of calls from fellow farmers asking them about their success mantra.The farmers can also enquire about diseases and pests affecting their crops with experts and specialists through a toll-free number provided by RML. They simply need to dial the number and record their problems with the call centre employees. The problems are then discussed with experts and the caller gets a reply-call with prescribed solutions.         

With the ever-growing use of mobile phones,  farmers in Nepal are also discovering ways to make their life easier. Now they can enquire about the price of their produce at major markets and negotiate prices with middlemen, avoid unnecessary travel to fetch agricultural inputs (especially if it is not available in the market) and seal deals with buyers. Farmers in Surkhet and Dailekh in the Mid-West development region can find out the price of vegetables and fruits through an SMS service provided by the Agro Enterprise Centre. Likewise, by calling a toll-free number, they can find out the prices of vegetables and fruits through voicemail. This service was piloted by Practical Action.

Mobile innovations
While we are being hit hard by loadshedding, farmers in India have found a unique method to deal with power cuts. With the help of a device designed by Vijay Bhaskar Reddy Dinnepu, founder of Vinfinet Technologies, they can direct their irrigation pump motors to switch on and off whenever they choose.

Through the device, the motor can also call back the farmer if there is voltage fluctuation or a power cut.  The device connects to farmers’ mobiles through an interactive voice response system (IVRS). With the provision of krishi meter (electrometers measuring subsidised electricity for agriculture), Nepali farmers can now irrigate their crops even during the dry season at cheaper prices. A device similar to that of Vinfinet Technologies could help them cope with regular power cuts and they can avoid staying on their fields for the whole day and night—in the cold and heat—waiting for power to resume.

The brains that developed the popular Android application ‘Taxi Meter’ which calculates the price of the distance travelled in a taxi and prevents travellers from being fleeced by taxi drivers must not leave behind farmers and agriculture in the ‘mobile revolution’. 

Ever growing mobile users
Cellphones, which are a necessity these days, is ubiquitous even in the remotest corners of the country. People living below the poverty line, above the line and the ultra-rich, all have access to mobiles and the telecom network. What aid workers could not do in decades has been accomplished in years by mobile operators. While the thought of building toilets in every household seems to be a dream, Nepalis from all walks of life hold mobiles in their hands. The private telecom service provider, Ncell, boasts of having reached the mark of 10 million subscribers while state-owned Nepal Telecom has similar claims (including Namaste, CDMA and 3G subscribers).

Like RML in India, across the developing world, mobile services in agriculture have focussed on sharing and obtaining information. The programmes developed so far provide farmers access to research and best practices, weather information and market prices via SMS, IVR or call centres. With the rise in population and intense competition in agriculture, it is of vital importance for farmers to increase their production and raise incomes. This is possible only if they have access to right information at the right time through mobile technology.

Recently, in an Information Communication Technology workshop held in Rajbiraj, one of the presenters asked the participants about the best way to reach people who do not have access to the internet. Three hands quickly rose in unison. The answer was the mobile phone in their hands. With millions of farmers with mobiles handy, what we need now is the right technology, like RML. It could be a ‘game changer’ for Nepali agriculture.       

Read the original post here.