Internet fever reaches the top of the world
Madanmohan Rao reports from the InfoTech Summit 2001 in Kathmandu
Sandwiched between the software powerhouse of India and the hardware dynamo of China, the mountain kingdom of Nepal also seems to be catching Internet fever.
Over 300 conference delegates, 75 exhibiting companies, and 60,000 trade show attendees from 20 countries gathered here in Kathmandu for the seventh annual InfoTech Summit, featuring a five-day trade show and a two-day conference (www.ITconference.org.np).
"Though Nepal has missed the industrial revolution, it can catch the IT bus and transform its knowledge into wealth and social good," said science and technology minister Surendra Prasad Chaudhary; the country has recently passed an IT policy in this regard.
Within just five years of the introduction of the Net to this Himalayan country, Nepalis have turned "Web crazy," writes Binaj Gurubacharya in the Kathmandu Post, the leading English-language daily whose news content featured prominently in the first major Web site published from Nepal in 1995, South-Asia.com.
Today, thousands of sites on Nepal offer news, travel and special interest information, ranging from NepalNews.com and AahaNepal.com to NepalOnline.net and Travel-Nepal.com.
Teens flock to sites like Boyfriend.com.np and Girlfriend.com.np, and the Marco Polo Hotel in Kathmandu even calls its Net-connected business centre the Software Library.
On a more serious note, a team of Harvard University researchers is using the Web as a conflict resolution platform to bring together a diverse group of individuals who may never meet face to face: members of the Maoist guerilla faction and the Nepalese police force, who are engaged in a conflict which has claimed over two thousand lives in the past four years.
The IT Summit was hosted by the Computer Association of Nepal (www.can.org.np), whose ambitious goal is to put Nepal on the global IT map within five years. Formed seven years ago, CAN today has over 100 institutional members.
Despite a traditional fixation with agriculture and tourism, momentum in the Internet sector is picking up. This year's CAN InfoTech Summit, which prominently features the Internet on the conference agenda, was inaugurated by the Crown Prince and was held at the expansive Birendra International Convention Centre, instead of a hotel floor as in previous years.
By the end of the year, Nepal is estimated to have 100,000 Internet users spread over 10 cities and towns. There are about a dozen ISPs led by Mercantile Communication and WorldLink; others include Capital Online, Everest Net, Himalayan Online, and Nepal Telecom.
ISP Mercantile has also launched an online education site called CyberLearningNepal.com, and WorldLink has launched an initiative called Campaign Saraswati to get over 150 Nepali schools online (www.nepalschools.org).
"The growth of CAN over the years is testimony to the potential of IT in Nepal," said keynote speaker Kenneth Keniston, a professor at MIT.
"However, IT can also spawn a globally-connected Westernised digital elite, and one must guard against creating new divides within and between countries," he urged.
While it may be unrealistic to expect new technologies like the Internet to eradicate deeper problems of poverty and injustice in a society like Nepal, there is a lot of potential emerging in this area in neighbouring countries like India, observed Keniston, who recently spent six months researching and teaching in India and now directs MIT's India Project.
He pointed to the low-cost Simputer device project in Bangalore, the CorDECT wireless-local-loop solution of IIT Madras, and the IndLinux project in India as notable examples of increasing Internet diffusion in developing countries.
Such technologies can even be extended to areas of a country where there is low literacy by using a literate Net operator to interface with the local populace, he said.
SAARC secretary general Nihal Rodrigo highlighted other instances of IT diffusion in South Asia, such as CAD in Bhutan, e-government in the Maldives, software 'hatcheries' in Pakistan, and flood detection projects in Bangladesh.
Still, the penetration of the Internet is less than 1 per cent of the population in each South Asian country, said Bhes Raj Kamel of Nepal Telecom Corporation.
The digital divide is perhaps the most acute in a landlocked country like Nepal, where 90 per cent of the population base of 25 million live in rugged mountainous regions which account for over 77 per cent of the surface area.
The 58 municipalities of Nepal have an aggregate teledensity of 8 phone lines per thousand people, according to Suresh Negmi, president of the IT Professional Forum. Extending the Net to rural areas will be a challenge when over 50 per cent of existing telephone service demand is as yet unmet.
E-government in Nepal is still at the basic office computerisation stage, and many of the government's past ambitious national plans have yet to be implemented in full, Negmi said.
Email was first introduced to Nepal in 1993, with full Web access launched in 1994. International Internet bandwidth is about 10 Mbps, but domestic peering between ISPs has yet to happen. There are also about 50 cybercafes in Kathmandu and 20 in Pokhara, offering Internet access at about a dollar an hour.
Nepal has 5 service providers for radio paging, 80 for cable TV, and one for cellphones. 42 per cent of the population has TV access, and 90 per cent has radio access. IT education is being offered by 4 universities, 25 colleges and 1,000 training institutes, according to figures provided by CAN.
Activities currently popular among IT companies here include GIS mapping, medical transcription, Web design, and back-end software. Figures touted optimistically in the business press in Nepal include World Bank predictions of exports of IT products from the country worth US$50 billion in the coming 20 years.
"We have tied up with U.S. company Heartland for medical transcription; we have over 500 employees today," says Juddha Gurong, CEO of Himalayan Infotech Services (www.hits.wlink.com.np). "Much of the IT action in Nepal is centred in Kathmandu; more promotion and development needs to happen in other cities as well," according to Gurong.
GeoSpatial Systems (www.geospatial-sysems.com), a joint venture between Japanese and Nepali companies, is active in the GIS area and offers services in map digitization, addition of spatial attributes, and Web-enabling of maps for geographic applications like yellow pages services.
"We have over 200 people working in three shifts; we are now adding almost 30 new people a month," says CEO Binod Pal. GIS tools play an important role in government activities like urban/rural planning, mining, logistics, and health services.
Useful online resources about Nepal include NepalNet (www.panasia.org.sg/nepalnet), NepalSearch.com, eNepal.com, HimalMag,com, Catmando.com, and NepalYellowPage.net. Free Web-based email services are offered by companies like ITnepal.com and ITNTI.com.
The Nepal Industrial Development Corporation has launched an online directory and resource called SMEcenter.com to promote smaller Nepalis companies on the Net.
On December 13, 2000, the government of Nepal released a national IT policy supporting electronic commerce, IT education, and e-government, and setting a target of NRS 10 billion in IT exports in five years (one Indian rupee = 1.6 Nepali rupees).
The policy is being regarded as a step in the right direction, but still falls short on critical areas like e-commerce legislation. The policy reduces import duties on hardware and software to a mere 1 per cent - but this applies only for companies in the IT sector, and not for residential users. And e-commerce sites in Nepal still cannot accept payment from abroad in dollars.
"We are still a cash-based society, and don't even accept cheques, let alone credit cards," joked Manohar Bhattarai, an advisor in rural-urban partnerships.
Indian IT and Internet companies active in Nepal include NIIT, Aptech, SSI, TCS, Pentasoft, Nucleus Software, Satyam Infoway, and Contests2Win. Many more are joining the fray, and a growing number of Nepali students are also turning to colleges in India for IT and engineering degrees.
"We host over 3,000 Indian domains and now over 50 Nepali domains," said Vikas Garg of Delhi-based Web hosting company Jingle Infotech.
Bangalore-based SPG Infotech has found a partner in Kathmandu for its Linux services. "We are expanding in South Asian countries like Nepal and identifying implementation partners for RedHat Linux solutions," said director A. Chandrasekar of SPG; the company runs a Linux site called LinuxSmartWorld.com.
Leaving aside sporadic unfortunate outbursts of anti-Indian sentiment, Indian IT companies will find a welcome reception in Nepal, according to CAN secretary general Rajib Subba, who himself studied engineering in Karnataka.
Despite much "e-optimism" voiced at the conference, key challenges for creating a knowledge industry base in Nepal will be in reversing the brain drain, tapping the Nepali diaspora, creating better conditions for Netpreneurs, nurturing a cadre of professional technology managers, improving IT education at consumer and corporate levels, and attracting venture capital.
On a recent visit to his home country, Nepali expat Pradeep Tulachan, member of the iPlanet group at the AOL/Netscape/Sun consortium in Silicon Valley, also emphasised the need for quality work to be done in Nepal in order to attract foreign IT investment.
"Today the biggest challenge is not how to stop Nepali IT professionals from going abroad but how to bring back those who have been working abroad," writes Unlimited Numedia CEO Allen Tuladhar, who himself returned from the U.S. in 1992.
Some Nepali expats are already involved in Web ventures like Yomari.net and ITNTI.com, but many more need to join the fray here.
Just as India has leveraged its non-resident Indians (NRIs), so also Nepal must harness its non-resident Nepalis (NRNs), argues Madan Lamsal in a recent issue of Business Age magazine; the government must also go beyond "showcase policies" and actually engage in activism on the lines of Singapore or Andhra Pradesh.
Science and Technology Minister Surendra Prasad Chaudhary is an active promoter of the Net in Nepal, but must be joined by the other ministries as well.
For its part, CAN is jointly lobbying for a higher profile for the IT sector, and organising promotional events not just in the capital city but also Biratnagar, Birgunj, Pokara and Bhairahawa.
CAN held the first-ever IT rally in Kathmandu this past December, and has launched an IT program, Suchana Prabidhi Dot Com, on community FM station Radio Sagarmatha.
"Our radio program - like that of the Kothmale Internet Community Radio project in Sri Lanka - can open up the world of the Internet to our radio listeners," according to program producer Gaurab Upadhaya; the program is being syndicated to other radio stations as well.
A radio set in Nepal (priced at Rs. 60) is a thousand times cheaper than a PC (Rs. 60,000), Upadhaya observed.
Rameshananda Vaidya, member of Nepal's National Planning Commission, said that harsh economic necessity will drive the country to IT, but technologies like the Internet must be developed in parallel with other older media forms like wall newspapers and should be contextualised within the key economic and social spheres of Nepal.
Concern over the digital divide is also growing at various non-governmental organizations in Nepal, such as the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (www.icimod.org.np).
Basic literacy in Nepal is around 55 per cent, and English literacy hovers at about 2 per cent. Factors constraining lack of online content in Nepalese and other local languages like Newari include a lack of standardisation of fonts.
"Despite such challenges, the Internet can help sectors like tourism, agriculture and handicrafts. It can help poverty alleviation by creating jobs via IT-enabled services, and help the workforce in other sectors become more competitive and globally connected," according to Basant Shreshta, information resource head at ICIMOD.
Established in 1983 to focus on sustainable development, ICIMOD's members in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region - the world's highest and most populous mountain region -- include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.
ICIMOD has been active in institutional capacity building among NGOs and educational organisations via recent workshops on Web publishing held in Himachal Pradesh, Shillong, and Tibet.
Headquartered in Kathmandu, ICIMOD also hosted the first South Asian Internet Summit in Dhaka in 1999, helped train Bhutan's first ISP DrukNet, and held Internet workshops in five central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Tadjikistan, Turmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Internetworking giant Cisco is increasing the profile of its networking academies in the region, according to Singapore-based training program manager Eli Tagakaki; Cisco has teamed up with UNDP for local capacity building in Asia and also for the NetAid.org site to raise funds aimed at reducing the digital divide.
In sum, CAN seems to have generated sufficient enthusiasm for the Net in Nepal, and though putting the country on the global IT map in five years will be an uphill task, it is a fittingly Himalayan vision.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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