by Nina Somera
When I brought out my laptop, a crowd immediately gathered around me. Ratan Bhandari remembered quite well the moment he returned to his hometown after years of studying in Kathmandu. The sheer amazement of people over a sleek electronic pad just speaks of their remoteness from such technology. But such sense of surprise-turned-curiosity suggests a people’s plain desire to know and engage.
During that homecoming, West Seti was opening itself to an ambitious developmental project. But although the teeming forests and valleys were still there, an ominous atmosphere was just palpable. Its snaking river, which has become the basis of human settlement and even animal migration spell the end of West Seti.
Not that the river has engulfed such resources but it will eventually do, submerging its teeming forest, grasslands and animal life and washing away the reminders of vibrant communities and diverse cultures.
Thanks to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), West Seti is about to host a massive hydropower project, shouldering about 15 per cent of the total cost of US$125 billion for the period of five years. Other investors include the Australian Multinational Company, Snowy Mountain Engineering Corporation (SMEC), China National Machinery Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC), India’s Infrastructure Leasing and Finance Systems (ILFS) and the Nepalese Government. Of the 750 megawatts that the dam will generate, 90 per cent is intended for India at a cost of NRs 3 (US$0.4) per unit. This, despite 80 per cent of Nepal are languishing in the dark while the rest pays NRs 7 (US$0.9) for every bit of electricity, that is not even continuous.
Meanwhile the communities that were to be affected by the project were the last to know of such impending displacement and disaster. To date the communities have yet to obtain the more detailed plans on the project. In 2000, an environment impact assessment (EIA) was approved and revised six years later. But this document was never shared. While a summary was recently made available on ADB’s website, it was in English.
According to the Asia Pacific Digital Review 2009-2010, Internet penetration in Nepal remains low, with .31 per 100 Internet users. Although the cost of equipment such as personal computers and Internet services generally tends to lower through time, even the more cosmopolitan cities are not spared of power cuts that last for up to 12 hours. “Sometimes when we study, we need to wait until midnight just to connect with the Internet,” said one student.
Furthermore, not all Nepalese can understand Nepali, the country’s national language. Literacy is likewise low, standing at 53.74 per cent on the average and among women, less than 50 per cent. Srijana Subedi, one of the affected residents in eastern Nepal where another ADB-funded hydropower project is being constructed could only agree, adding that of all the media in Nepal, community radio remains the most accessible to people, especially women, who can listen to programmed while working. “Radio can reach even the most remote village. It is also good even when there is no electricity,” she described.
Listeners may also participate in the radio programs by calling the station and giving their views during a live broadcast. Although telephone density is quite minimal and problems persist in communication lines, mobile phone usage is on the rise. Like the West Seti hydropower and Melamchi water supply projects, benefits from Khimti hydropower project are bound elsewhere. It was only because of the communities’ persistence that some electricity was provided to the village development councils (VDCs). Such provision however remains incomplete for out of the 10 VDCs in the area, only six are enjoying electricity.
The Khimti hydropower project costs US$140 million with 75 per cent loan from the ADB, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), Norway’s Eksportfinans AS, Finland’s Nordic Development Fund and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). But however strategic and appropriate community radios are as a communications platform, respect for people’s communication rights is ultimately based on one’s desire to share information and empower communities.
As another community leader asserted, “We only learned about the project through the radio. Local people must be informed through the local media beforehand.” Dipkshika Dahal added that the timeliness and quality of information also lies to the extent the ADB has corrupted people within the communities. There were instances when VDC officials were bribed to keep vital information among them.
With the increasing encroachment on the land, people are eventually surrendering their lands, with some members of the households and sometimes, whole families migrating to other areas. Dipkshika also revealed that some have become engaged into sex work and some more have been sexually exploited. Meanwhile indigenous groups such as the Masi have been forced not to rely on fishing, their main occupation, given the scarcity of water. Communities around the Khimti project have actually demanded a face-to-face exchange with people from the Bank. “Before planning the project, ADB must take steps who are the affected people and address them as well. Both the positive and negative consequences must be told to the people. ADB must also be informed directly about the impact of the project and there must be no other people between us,” Dipkshika remarked.
Ratan likewise asserted that all project information must be disclosed to the communities in a timely fashion and in languages that people understand before any decision by the Bank’s board is made. “Multi-stakeholder consultations and public hearings must take place in a meaningful and effective manners after the disclosure of such information,” he added. Indeed Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “the medium is the message” resonates in these cases. With ADB’s choice of medium and mode of communication with the public, its message is just as clear as glass.