TV coming to the fairy-tale Kingdom of Nepal

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Television is about to poke its antenna into the once-isolated kingdom of Nepal. Nestled for the most part in a plateau-valley, high in the Himalayas between Tibet and India, the Kingdom of Nepal was first opened to the outside world in the early 1950s. Since that time, mainly by courtesy of richer, developed countries, Nepal has seen the construction of several roads (before that all travel was by foot trails), the development of the Royal Nepal Airline, Yuppie trekkers, waves of hippies who have come and gone, new tour groups, and thousands of adventurous tourists who have been delighted to discover a medieval society existing side by side with a developing 20th-century economy. Rickshaws, exotic Hindu architecture, and Buddhist monkey temples share Katmandu, Bhaktapur, and Patan space with chic boutiques, luxury hotels, and even a gambling casino. But, despite all the new construction, the kingdom seems to be managing to maintain a unique otherworldly quality.

In the midst of this ambivalent attempt to grow modern without losing its traditions, two years ago in his inaugural address to the Rashtriya Panchayat (the National Assembly), the new European-educated King of Nepal made a major policy statement:

Nepal should have television, too.

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On the basis of that announcement, the Ministry of Communications has since studied its feasibility, with the help of consulting organizations from Japan, France, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Worldview International Foundation, a nongovernmental UN-associated organization, has set up a Nepal media training center in the use of video technology for development-support communications. Now, the Ministry of Communications has come to this decision:

Nepal will have television by the end of 1985.

On a recent visit to Katmandu, I was told that by Prem Prakash Shrestha, TV adviser to the acting secretary of the Ministry of Communications. And even more recently, the program chief of Nepal TV was finally selected -- Nil Shah, a well-known Nepali film director/actor.

After a long bicycle-rickshaw ride from Durbar Square in the center of old Katmandu, I found Mr. Shrestha, an engineer with a degree from Syracuse University in New York, in his borrowed office in the telecommunications compound below a land bridge, behind the family-planning offices. I walked into one of the buildings and found a group of barefooted office workers heating their morning coffee over an open fire on the concrete floor. In another building I found Mr. Shrestha, dressed in a pin-striped suit, but with a plaid wool scarf and a Nepalese toti to ward off the cold in the unheated office.

Mr. Shrestha indicated that ``we do not want to move very rapidly. We cannot afford to make mistakes like we have seen in other countries such as Sri Lanka where the projects first conceived were just too big. We are considering the introduction of television on an experimental basis, covering areas like education, agriculture, and health with just a little entertainment.''

Mr. Shrestha says that Worldview has informed Nepalese authorities that developing the hardware (technical) side will be easier and much faster than the software (programming). He says that 16 Nepalese have already been sent to Norway for preliminary training. Some of these trainees will be chosen to play important roles in Nepalese TV programming.

On the financial side, Mr. Shrestha says that Nepal is finding it difficult to fund its own TV development. ``If the experimental station is a small enough financial involvement of less than $1 million, his majesty's government itself will invest. But, if it proves to require more than that, we will probably request friendly countries for aid in the form of a loan or assistance.''

Mr. Shrestha says that ``to start with it will be state TV, with some commercial programs. UNESCO people have told us not to try to have programs too fast because we may be tempted to import junk programs from outside and we will be spoiling our youth.'' By junk programs, it is clear he means mostly outdated American, British, and German productions, such as 20-year-old situation comedies.

The advice from UNESCO, according to Mr. Shrestha, is that ``we should develop our own programs because our country is so different from others. If we develop our own programs, they explain to us, we will be able to fulfill the needs of the local people. They tell us that if we can import very cheap programs, they may have an adverse effect on the society.'' Is Mr. Shrestha talking about American-originated programs?

He nods. ``Something like that. But since our emphasis is on education, agriculture, and health, we may be able to get some sponsorship from UN organizations like the WHO [World Health Organizaion] and FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization]. Because they have been working in developing countries, they may have some programs which are similar to the needs we have.''

Although there is no Nepalese TV at present, Mr. Shrestha estimates that there are more than 5,000 TV sets in the Katmandu valley, which has a population of around 800,000. ``In a couple of years' time our thinking is that we will have 25,000 sets in Katmandu valley. If we can use the satellite, other areas will also have TV.''

Those with sets already watch programs from India, Thailand, and even the Soviet Union. ``Mostly the programs are from Patna in India.''

Can Mr. Shrestha, who seems to be one of the most active proponents of TV in Nepal, articulate the philosophy of the government about TV?

``We want to bring improvement by educating our people. But we are aware that there are certain controversial aspects -- it is a luxury for a poor country. But TV will definitely help overcome the lack of communications internally. People in the remote villages will be able to watch us. We can bring them effective educational programs to improve agriculture and health.''

Entertainment? ``Entertainment will be a side thing to encourage them to watch the educational parts.''

According to Mr. Shrestha, Nepal will probably follow the Indian pattern of providing TV sets to isolated communities. ``After that, we will provide TV sets to the schools.''

Mr. Shrestha is very proud of the rapid development of education in Nepal. ``In 1950 we had only 5 or 6 schools where children were taught up to Grade 10. Now we have many thousands such schools. We had only one college in 1950; now we have more than 30.''

Thus Nepal is a prime testing field for the theory that television in a developing country has a much more important role to play than television in a developed country. Entertainment, if it ever comes at all, will arrive last since the philosophy of utilizing the communications media -- especially television -- as an instrument of government-controlled education is taking hold in third-world countries. The UN and its various aid organizations seem to be espousing that cause. Commercial television, the argument goes, is a luxury only rich nations can afford. And even then, it is too often a morally corrupting influence on the populace.

When Nepal TV finally goes on the air, according to Mr. Shrestha, ``our hope is that the first message will be from the King. After all, he has asked that we have TV in Nepal in 1985 and we are accomplishing what he has asked for.''

When I told my Nepalese guide in the city of Patan, once one of the independent kingdoms of Katmandu valley, that he would be seeing Nepal TV within the year, he smiled and shook his head sadly.

``Nepal time is different,'' he said. ``You know, our 600-year-old antiques are really six-days old. We will be lucky if one year in Nepal time is 10 years in your time.'' A Friday column

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