Mar 26, 2023
Mar 26, 2023
by Satis Shroff
I met Toni Hagen ages ago in Freiburg where he’d come to give a talk about Nepal, and I must say he made a jolly good impression. As a long-time Freiburger, I went with him to a local tavern near the Schwabentor for a swig of German beer. ‘I’ve travelled 14,000 km on foot in Nepal’ said Toni Hagen, a soft-spoken, silvery-haired Swiss-geologist who would be 89 years now, hadn’t Yamaraj beckoned him earlier.
He had that typical Schwyzerdeutsch accent, and he liked to think of his days in Nepal in the early fifties as his ‘wandering years,’ for as is the custom in Switzerland and Germany, when you’re through with learning your trade you embark upon an adventurous trip seeking expertise in as many cities and countries as possible before you settle down someplace. His poor wife had to remain in Lenzerheide with the children.
In the case of Toni Hagen, however, he seemed to be a wandering soul, even in the winter of his life, spending half of his time in the Swiss Alps and the other half in the Himalayas. He was one of the last living witnesses of a secretive Nepal of the Middle Ages. He entered the Kingdom at a time when it was a “forbidden land” in the early fifties. As the first foreigner who had the freedom of travelling in Nepal as he pleased, Hagen visited areas which are still forbidden to most people even today. Most Toni Hagen admirers can view his life and experiences in the film ‘The Ring of Buddha.’ It is a melange of original film material from the fifties, colour transparencies from his book on the geology of Nepal, and the viewer gets an idea of the Kingdom of Nepal and its peoples. When I saw the film, I had the uneasy feeling that he was saying goodbye to us all.
With the passage of time, Toni Hagen changed his profession from geology to development-work, and he was deeply concerned about the problems of development aid, its successes and failures not only in Nepal but also in many other countries. The people interested him more than the stratigraphic formations. In a book published by the Unesco, dealing with the ‘socio-economic problems of Nepal’ he mentioned the development projects in Nepal and said that the ‘ecological catastrophe prophesy’ that he made in the early fifties ‘has come true’ and talked about the pioneer work in the geological survey of Nepal from 1960 till 1970, and wrote about his new edition of ‘Nepal’ and proudly mentioned that it was a fourth edition ‘without any changes’, and called it a standard work on Nepal, which indeed it is.
He took delight in the fact that the World Bank stopped the Arun III project in Nepal thanks to his efforts and the united lobbying on the part of the ecological organisation Urgewalt, Dr. Hermann Warth, and the political fractions from the SPD, Bündnis 90, the Greens and the PDS in influencing the German government, in addition to the decision of the new World Bank president James Wolfensohn and the assertion of the then prime minister Adhikary. After the World Bank decision not to finance the dam project, it was taken for granted that the 235 million marks from the German side would be set aside for other smaller projects. The Arun III was observed in Germany as development-politics gone haywire.
‘What Nepal needs,’ he stressed, ‘is not road-building projects but genuine and effective help in the agricultural sector. What Nepal needs are not atomic plants but water-works.’ And he wasn’t tired of mentioning, with a sense of pride, that His Majesty King Birendra had read his old reports and had asked him for his opinion regarding Nepal’s optimal development.
‘Is it too late for my country?’ was the question asked by King Birendra, he said, and in the same breath he expressed his admiration for the Nepalese King. He was of the opinion that ‘constitutional monarchy and continuity are essential for Nepal’s survival,’ and praised the advantages of decentralisation, which according to him, is a central characteristic of democracy and is important for every case involving planning whether it’s hydroelectric plants or tourism. In those days, the only pressure that Nepal had as a sovereign state was from India in connection with the trade and transit disagreements. Times have changed and the threat is from within, in the form of maoists, and not from without.
Toni Hagen said, ‘Development must come from the grassroots.’ He was awarded the title of ‘Distinguished Person of Kathmandu City’ on 15th of June 1995 by the mayor of Kathmandu Mr. P.L. Singh, who also presented him a key to the city. On this occasion Toni Hagen went on record as saying ‘Despite the failure of some politicians and parties, freedom of speech, press-freedom, multiparty system and the role of the opposition in the parliament remain the most important trait of the new system in Nepalese politics.
Nepal can be divided into seven zones: the Terai, the Siwalik Hills, the Mahabharat Mountains (Lekh), the Nepal Midlands, the Himalayas, the Inner Himalayas and the Tibetan marginal mountains. And according to Toni Hagen the river system existed before the Nepal Himalayas came into existence. The Himalayan rivers carved gigantic gorges. According to him it would be appropriate if the Midlands were not ignored today. Almost lamentably he said that the terai urwald, primeval forest, did not exist anymore and talked about the World Bank and the Nepalese government’s project of settling people from the hills to the terai.
From the terai to the hills you have in ascending order of crop cultivation: rice, wheat, maize, millet, potatoes and grassland. Wheat is a relatively new crop in Nepal. He found the soft green revolution in Kathmandu welcome, but at the same time he pointed to the fact that the population had risen in the last decade at an alarming tempo, and called it ‘schlimm’ and bad enough. Nepal, in comparison to other Asian countries, has five persons per hectre of land’, he said and ‘possesses the biggest concentration of population density’.
Then he started to talk about the soil erosion. From the terai at the gangetic-level upto a height of 1800m you have rice terraces and from there up to 3000m you have the Kampfzone (battle-zone) for existence and above that you have, till an elevation of 3500m, forests with increasing erosion and then grasslands in the Himalaya regions. He pointed out that the steep terraces resulted in soil erosion caused by human beings. The yield per hectre had been decreasing and the land for cultivation had also been decreasing.
As far as the terai was concerned, his prognosis was that it would produce surplus food for a decade, and mentioned that most of the food went to India, because the traders in the plains offered better prices and the transport infrastructure was already there in form of good railways and roads.
In the terai the ground water can be reached at a depth of 2 metres. The terai, with its rich alluvial soil, could be developed into the corn-chamber of Nepal, much like the Punjab in India. And Nepal should not export its rice to India but keep it for domestic demands in the Kingdom. He shook his head and said, ‘It’s easy, but it doesn’t function. We may have a surplus at the moment but the question is whether we can keep up this production or not?’
The farmers must be helped was his argument. Toni Hagen admitted he didn’t have a patent recipe for the problems of Nepal. The farmers had been ignored in Nepal according to Toni Hagen (not so in Taiwan and Niger). He complained that the Foreign Aid until 1976 invested money mostly in road-construction projects which was a grave mistake, for it sucked up the last reserves of Nepal.
Nepal is like a very sick patient. Multilateral and bilateral aid agencies at the governmental and non-governmental level have injected foreign cash and material into Nepal, and the result is that the very economic structure has been weakened. A sum of US 552.8 million was transferred to Nepal without any visible changes in the economic structure of the country and has created an aid-industry in which the corrupt middlemen earn a good living. The country’s masses suffer stoically, as they have done throughout the centuries at the hands of other rulers. Chakari, neoptism and corruption are just as rampant in the post-democratic era as in the past.
It must be noted, he said, that above 90% of the Nepalese population lives on agriculture. The first priority was given to transport, then agriculture and lastly energy. The other way round would have been better on the long run.
He held a pedagogic finger and reminded one Nepal is a country with the biggest hydro-electric potential in the world. ‘Even back in the fifties I suggested to the government to develop energy. Some officials regarded him as ‘backward in his thinking,’ and according to him foreign exchange was wasted on useless thermal energy projects.
Whereas the population of Nepal in 1950 was 8 million, in 1988 it was 17,5 million. Today it’s 27 million. And whereas the mean life expectancy in 1950 was 26 years, a Nepalese now can live to be 40 to 50 years old if not more. Malaria was rampant in 1950 with 3 million cases, and in the eighties malaria, which was thought to have been eradicated, has made a comeback because the ‘mosquitoes are immune’. Whereas there were 2,5 million domestic animals in 1962, there are over 3,2 million these days. And whereas there were 6,4 million hectares of forest in 1950, it was reduced to half, namely 3,2 hectares in 1982. And whereas the illiteracy in 1950 was 98%, by 1976 almost 77% of the boys (and 25% girls) had gone through compulsory primary school. And as for the medical aspects, 50% more Nepalese doctors are concentrated in Kathmandu Valley than anywhere else in the Kingdom. Due to the war between the Maoists and the government troops and police there has been a steady decline (38%) in the tourist since 1998. And more than 13 000 Nepalese have died in the struggle for power. This would have appeared like a nightmare to Toni Hagen, who had another picture of Nepal in his mind—corrupt, but peaceful and tolerant. Live and let live was the life philosophy. Today it’s live and let die.
The rate of people leaving the rural areas was 3% in 1951 in comparison to 12% in 1982. The crop production figures and prospects according to the Swiss expert look gloomy with a deficit in the year 2000, beginning already in the early with a downward trend.
To a question about the Swiss road in Jiri, which had been praised in German TV as an ecological and technical masterpiece, he said: ‘It’s well built, but wrongly laid (falsch Angelegt). Neither did he have words of praise for the Nepal-India road, nor for the Kathmandu-Lhasa highway, which were great engineering feats. The Tribhuvan Rajpath connecting Nepal with India (built in 1956) was very bad because of erosion along the sides of the road. He called it a ‘terrible construction’. In the meantime the road is open for traffic.
‘In development aid there’s always a wrong investment. The aid-donors wanted to do too much in Nepal. That was the problem’, says Toni Hagen.
On the 11th of April 1996 there was a two-day ‘Nepal Aid Group’ conference in Paris, the first of its kind since 1992. The participating 13 donor nations were: Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Holland, Norway, the Saudi Development Fond, Switzerland, U.K., USA, in addition to various international finance organisations. The summit granted for the period 1996-97 assistance worth US$ 993 million to Nepal.
The then Nepalese finance minister Dr. Ram Sharan Mahat said, ‘The meeting in Paris has proved that the donor-nations show a cooperative attitude towards Nepal. The main points that these countries complained about were: the constant posting of the government employees, their sinking morale and the delay in the posting and transfers of the civil servants engaged in the development works. The aid-donors suggested that the prices of the public service should be oriented to the actual costs and emphasised the necessity of controlling the rampant corruption’.
Another current trend in development aid from Europe is this ‘Help to Self-Help’ especially from the Germans. In 1995 Nepal received 29.3 million German marks for the projects and programmes of the financial and technical cooperation (FZ & TZ). The financial cooperation involves family-planning, a road infrastructure and a biogas project.
Toni Hagen said, ‘The Nepalese, for instance, should plant trees and care for them for five years. Integral projects would be good for Nepal’ and went on to talk about big projects with the motto: ‘No money, no water’ in other countries. The big organisations of rich countries have lots of money for development projects but how the money was invested was another matter. In his book on development problems he analysed 230 development projects, and according to him in rural areas only small projects have a chance to survive.
He quoted the villager who said, ‘My village has survived so many development projects’. Does it do good to bring the villages in developing countries to modern levels?
Even Swiss villages have come into being through laborious processes of development over long periods of history. Nepal is trying to catch up with the developed world within a few decades. There’s also the question of loss of identity due to development aid. Toni Hagen’s world existed during the Hippie-happy and Flower-power days, for there were no signs of militant maoists in those days. I remember a visitor from England, who was travelling with his side-kick from south India, who said, ‘In Nepal even children can walk around the countryside without fear of being molested or abducted. The Nepalese are such a wonderful people.’ Today, the parents would think twice before they let their children roam about in Nepal.
During my Tri Chandra College days, the communist students came from Doti, Silgadi and Dharan and had stacks of literature penned by Kim Il Sung, Lenin, Marx and Mao’s red books, all made available by the respective cultural centres of these communist countries in Kathmandu. Nobody raised an eyebrow, for these books were available every, even at the Sajha shops of Kathmandu and elsewhere. Today the maoists have spread from Rukum and the Far West but also in Kathmandu. An educated working mother from Kathmandu, with a PhD from Germany, wrote recently to me, ‘Imagine how life in Kathmandu is, due to the corrupt politicians. Right now there are street blockades, actually economic blockades around Kathmandu imposed by the maoists, The market-price of food commodities have gone pretty high. Sugar, kerosine and other fuels are not available. The businessmen are also responsible for the artificial scarcity. One has to be prepared to pay thrice the price for these commodities and you will get these. Life has become insecure for us Nepalese these days. Once you leave your house, you will never know what might happen. A bomb on the roadside might blow you up.’
Toni Hagen would have thought differently were he living these days, for Nepal has been undergoing a political and military turmoil and Nepal’s face has changed a lot. But let’s talk about our ageing Swiss friend. Toni Hagen’s eyes twinkled when he spoke about the humorous and sunny nature of the Nepalese soul. He called it ‘die Heiterkeit der Seele’ in German, which means the joyousness of the soul.
‘The Nepalese don’t take anything seriously, and themselves the least,’ he said with a smile. And then he switched over to an anecdote about one of the first DC-3 landings in Pokhara in 1950, which was quite a feat then. There was a big crowd of Gurung, Thakali and Tamang farmers gathered to watch the propeller-driven Dakota- aircraft. Out of the DC-3 came a jeep along the ramp and an astonished Nepali farmer said: “It’s like a birth. The small vehicle will learn to fly soon!” In his film he also mentioned his early porters who’d thrown his geological data, namely rocks from the Himalayas, because they’d though rocks are everywhere, so why carry them. It was a hilarious situation in the film, but such a thing wouldn’t have happened if he’d taken the trouble to talk with his porters in their lingo about the importance of the specimens they were carrying behind their backs.
‘Nepal hasn’t changed since the last 45 years in the hills,’ he said, with a twinge of nostalgia and talked about Pokhara with its backdrop of the gigantic Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountains. He liked to call the Machapuchare the ‘Nepalese Matterhorn’ in his exquisite Swiss accent and said the Swiss Matterhorn looked so insignificant when compared with the Fish-Tail Mountain. And then he expressed his praise and admiration for the ‘precisely laid rice terraces in Nepal, a wonderful innovation of the Nepali people.’ The terrace farming is a several 100 year old tradition in Nepal. Speaking English as a Swiss geologist from Lenzerheide is one thing, but learning the Nepali language and speaking it is another. Most visitors to Nepal have the attitude that the Nepalese speak English, and they should learn German, Japanese which easier and more convenient for visitors than the other way around.
‘Rice is regarded noble and millet as of lesser quality,’ said Toni Hagen and spoke of the golden yellow millet fields below the Machapuchare. Below the 2000m Dhaulagiri you have the red ‘kodo’ millet-fields and kodo is protein-rich. He was also all-praise for the Nepali farmers with their diversification of products. There was no monoculture in Nepal (except in the tea-plantations of Ilam and Darjeeling). The farmers planted rice, wheat, potatoes and varied them.
The Rara lake at 3000m reminded him of the Swiss lakes in the Alps. And Langtang at 3,500m had lush meadows, with hundreds of edelweiss flowers like in the Alps. He said: ‘When I was in Langtang for the first time, I thought we could make cheese here with yak-milk and that’s how the Swiss-idea of setting up a dozen cheese factories in the Nepal Himalayas began. The cheese is transported on the backs of the Tamang and Sherpa porters from a height of 5,800m to Kathmandu. The Tibetans, Sherpas, Tamangs and other Nepalese ethnic groups knew only churpi, the Nepalese hard-cheese, which is pure casein.
I told him, ‘We, Nepalese, call it Nepali chewing-gum’ and he laughed. Toni Hagen appreciated the Swiss-aided Himalayan cheese and said they tasted just as good as the Swiss ones.
‘And some even have Swiss-holes in the cheese,’ he said with a laugh. This scribe remembers eating cheese and drinking yak-milk during his Amrit Science College days with his Nepalese Ascolite friends at the milk-shop in Thamel. It can happen that some have no enzyme called lactase in their intestine flora and cannot digest the milk-products and suffer from Kathmandu-quicksteps. The Swiss-idea was also a boon to the tourists, foreign residents and western-oriented Nepalese.
Recalling his surveys in the Khumbu area: Ama Damlam, Makalu and Mt. Everest he said, like a boarding-school boy who had gone out of bounds, “ In 1956 I managed to go to Tibet, to the north of Everest without permission. The Chinese were then in Tibet.” And talked about the dangerous and treacherous glaciers: “You’re never sure when water flows under the glacier.”
According to him there was an increasing population mobility in Nepal, but the racial schemes still exist. Then he was ecstatic about the incomparable harmonious religious tolerance in Nepal.
‘Take Swayambhunath for instance, which is for all Hindus and Buddhists. The Nepalese live near each other, mingle with each other: nebeneinander, durcheinander.’ he said. Today it`s more durcheinander due to the war in Nepal. But he certainly wasn’t thinking about Nepal’s political problems with the Maoists. What Nepal needs is a culture of tolerance between the warring political parties, for after battling with each other, the Maoists, democratic parties and the monarch should realise that what all in the end desire is peace. Peace and tolerance is a better path than violence. Aggressive behaviour and politics has only lead to destruction of all involved in Nepal’s struggle. Like old Hagen said, “Let us live together, despite the differences.”
Toni Hagen is dead, but my memories of him remain. His ashes were strewn over the Khumbu Himalayas at an altitude of 5500m by his daughter Katrin from a Karnali Air helicopter. I still see him with his blue glassy eyes, as he raised his beer glass, and said with a tinge of nostalgia, ‘Auf Nepal .’ I followed it up with ‘Auf die Schweiz!’ He’d invited me to Lenzerheide, but I never made it.
More by : Satis Shroff