Crisis of imagination

Published On: October 2, 2018 01:30 AM NPT By: Bishal Thapa

In the 21st digital century, Nepal must do better than imagining that bull shit (manure) will “accelerate financial, industrial and social growth”

In one of his first demonstrations to illustrate real progress on the ground, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli inaugurated a large-scale biogas plant in Biratnagar. 

On August 22, Oli arrived in Jatuwa in Biratnagar-14 with two ministers and the World Bank country director in tow. The convoy of 22 cars, as one local counted, hurried to the inauguration site with sirens blazing and welcome garlands all around. 

Oli and his entourage inaugurated a biogas plant serving 35 houses through a gas-pipe network. It had been built at a cost of Rs 15 million through collaboration between the Ministry of Energy, Water Resources and Irrigation (MoEWRI), World Bank and Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC). The 200 cubic meter biogas plant relied on the 205 cows of Shree Krishna Gaushala, a farmhouse nearby, that was expected to produce approximately 2,000 kilograms (kg) of cow and bull shit (manure) every day.  

As Oli lit the flame and inaugurated the system, the scent of freshly cooked rice wafted through the air. The sight of the flame roaring under the cooking pot mixed with the smell of freshly cooked rice was just too much for the dignitaries. Effusive speeches about the transformative power of the moment quickly followed.

Minister for Energy, Barshaman Pun, announced very loudly that the campaign for self-reliance had begun. Though, it was only in a very small scale, he added somewhat softly.

Prime Minster Oli was as grand as his energy minister. “The age of carrying cylinders on shoulders has come to an end; be it for a few families,” he said proudly. 

Had he stayed a bit longer, he might have noticed that in Biratnagar actually no one carries gas cylinders on their shoulders. They carry it in small electric three-wheeler trucks. Had he chosen to look further, he might have seen that it is usually women who spend much of their day collecting manure for bio-gas plants before heading to the kitchen to cook.

Prime Minister Oli wasn’t exactly clear on whose burden he had removed. But that was no bar. The World Bank, who had invested in the project, offered the grandest claims.

In a statement proudly posted on its Facebook with accompanying photographs, of course, the World Bank offered this: “Speaking at the event, World Bank Country Manager Faris Hadad-Zervos said, “This involvement in the bio-gas sector complements our overall involvement in energy, especially the production of clean and renewable energy for Nepal to accelerate financial, industrial and social growth.””

Politicians, like the energy minister and the prime minister, can be forgiven for letting sloganeering overtake the truth. But not the World Bank. As development partner, it must subscribe to a higher standard of truth and not peddle this kind of bull shit photo opportunity that mocks our intelligence, smacks of condescension and relegates us to a pre-historic era of development. 

It is a pity we don’t have Saturday Night Live, the US comic show, in Nepal. There would be at least five humorous skits to come out of this inauguration, including a headline that might famously say: “World Bank funds bull-shit “for Nepal to accelerate financial, industrial and social growth.””

Writers at most can merely mock with irreverent humour and plead with genuine passion. Let me also try the latter. I beg the World Bank to find the courage to initiate its own public debate on whether such investments can, in fact, help “Nepal to accelerate financial, industrial and social growth.” If not that, at least to check if the bio-gas plant represents the appropriate symbol for Nepal’s aspiration.

We should be imagining a future that leverages and offers the conveniences of modern technology. Our future cannot be a woman with cow-shit piled on a basket balanced on her head.

Imagine this

Bio-gas plants are a great idea. This concept has been around for several decades. 

But in the middle of Biratnagar, an urban metropolis that is growing rapidly, does a bio-gas plant make sense? The World Bank had an explanation: “It (the bio-gas plant) also addresses the challenge of stray cattle, by putting their waste to good use.”

I have heard of bio-gas plants that use cow-dung. But I have never heard of bio-gas plants that get stray cattle to come and shit in one place. Bio-gas plants do put “waste to good use” but they do not “address the challenge of stray cattle.”

As you look through the text and sub-text on the Biratnagar bio-gas project, you realize very quickly that these are solutions in search of a problem. We need to overcome the lethargy of our thinking and begin building towards a wider imagination.

Imagine this. Instead of inaugurating a bio-gas plant, we were inaugurating a fuel cell plant that provided cooking and lighting energy to all residents of that community.

Imagine this. Instead of inaugurating a bio-gas plant, we were inaugurating a city gas pipe distribution system in Biratnagar which provided the entire city with access to clean natural gas for cooking delivered through a pipe line. 

Imagine this. Instead of inaugurating a bio-gas plant, we were inaugurating a natural gas depot that connected to Indian gas networks and linked beyond to international gas imports, thus providing us reliable and secure source of supply.   

Instead here we are, fooling ourselves into believing that the bio-gas plant serving 35 homes represents the catalyst that will “accelerate financial, industrial and social growth.” Oh, and of course, solve the “challenge of stray cattle.”

Whether in energy, health, education or economic growth, our development challenge is no more than a failure of imagination. Our crisis in energy, health, education and economic growth is no more than a crisis in imagination. 

Conceptualize our future 

We now have a new constitution, a new government and a new basis for hope. But within that we also need to know what we are hoping for.

Our imagination is still looking for inspiration in the past. The bio-gas plant is a great, well tried and tested solution that has been in use for many decades. It remains relevant for many parts of Nepal.

But it cannot be the centrality of our future. The imagination for our aspiration must draw from recent innovations in new technologies across the wide variety of different sectors and fields. We must have a picture that looks forward, not back and embraces new technologies, not shies away from them.

For that we need government and development partners to understand and rally behind our aspirations. We need them to invest and encourage applications of new technologies, concepts and ideas—not merely repeat claims that would have been better served half a century ago.

To start, perhaps we should draw inspiration from the powerful English word around which Nepal has been built: Conceptualize. It is one of those rare English words that contains all the letters of “NEPAL” from left to right and in that order.

Oh, by the way. The bio-gas plant stopped working within a month of its inauguration. People now have the burden of carrying gas cylinders on their shoulders, the campaign for self-reliance has stopped and the acceleration of “financial, industrial and social growth”—well, that was never meant to be, anyway. 

How would you conceptualize a Nepali future?

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