Standing on a high ridge and cocking an ear against the wind, I can hear the distant thunder of approaching Development. A short way down the frothing wild rapids of the gorge where the Bamn meets the Arun, they are going to build a hydropower plant.
The Infant Arun is a scaled-down version of" the monstrosity originally planned at Num, but from what I can gather from my activist friends In Kathmandu, El Nino here has a terminal case of gigantitis. So if I speak with more passion about this subject; excuse moi. This project is right up my river.
The Fat Cats of Kathmandu have always believed Big is Beautiful and Profitable. High dams equal Big Bucks, while mini and microhydros aTe for the birds. Egged on by co-conspirators out West, it looks like the Fat Cats will get their way once more. Only this time, the blunder is going to cost many times beyond Kuiekhani, that overpriced beaver dam on a brook near Kathmandu.
This area is not going to be same again. The langur tells me land sharks from the lower hills are buying up the forests from Hiley through Tumlingtar to Khandbari. On the Khandbari ridge, the cloud forests ablaze with rhododendron are now on fire — torched by foolish villagers staking claims. Do not take any chances if the Arun Highway alignment is not yet clear. Burn down the whole mountain.
Even baby langurs know that Baby Arun is bad economics. But not the Prime Mover in Kathmandu. Even.if the boys from the Bank ladle out nice soft loans and smiling ambassadors offer condition-loaded grants, El Nino is still going to be the most expensive project in its class ever con¬ceived.
So I let off a blood-curdling Tarzan yell and swung from vine to vine down to Num to ambush an advance team of Arun pediatricians from the Bank of Megalomania. And there they were, already at the scene of the crime, showing around development merchants composed of turbine manufacturers, tunnel vision specialists, helicopter charterers, and suppliers of cement. Did I detect drool glinting in the late afternoon sunlight as they eye the innocent white water?
It looked like everything has been decided without Homo sapiens nepalensis having been consulted. Me Tarzan. YouJane. This Democracy.
Another time, I watched from behind a soon-to-be-submerged boulder as a road engineer arrived in a flurry of helicopter rotors; Sovereignty of the valley seemed to have been transfened over to his consultancy firm. While upstream, he mapped the far side. He then crossed across and surveyed the near side. He barely had time to grab a couple of pebble samples before the evacuation helicopter arrived.
Further south, the megalomaniacs from the Bank had established a beach-head at the Tumlingtar airstrip. As they picnicked over beer and five-star lunch packs, I sneaked up behind a banmara bush to listen in on the logistics of die project. It sounded like an apocalyptic version of the Vietnam experience. Giant Chinook helicopters capable of lifting 25 tons at a time are to ferry construction material to seven "forward bases" near Num.
All in all, this airborne assault will cost fifty million dollars. Ah-hah. So Arun Three, die Big Swindle, is being preceded by a heliborne Baby Swindle. I look up at the circle of villagers that had gathered around to observe. Their eyes are wide open but they cannot see die looting that has begun, nor will anyone guide them on how to partake in it.
After doing some basic arithmetic, and even after wildly inflating the tonnage to be lifted, I calculated that the job of getting the stuff to Num could be done for about half of the cost budgeted for the helicopters, by relying on the ageold Himalayan heavylift cargo methodology – portering.
Using hardy Arun Valley porters, you would do the job cheaper. What´s more: the money would be pumped right into the village economy rather than be siphoned off by some Singaporean helicopter charier. The only cheaper and more environmental-friendly alternative would be to air-drop the cement and turbines from C-l 30 Hercules aircraft over Num, Bosnia-style.
Carrying cement bags or even dismantled turbines will be a piece of cake for the Himalayans, who have a glorious
tradition of being able to carry anything over any hump. Three-ton lorries were once lifted by porters over the Chitlang Pass and into Kathmandu Valley. Nepal´s first hydropower plant at Pharping, in the Valley´s south, had its turbines, tail-races and dynamos lugged over by an army of porters. But I guess that was a time when money came out of the wallets of nasty oligarchs, with no multinational develop¬ment bahks to dangle juicy megawatts before weakling politicians.
Donning a golf cap, I hastened undercover to Dhankuta and established contact with bhariya thekedars, contractors who arrange for porteTs to carry anything from kerosene tins to hyper-ventilating trekkers. Negotiations began in earnest, once they knew me multi-crores I was offering. A bag of cement weighs fifty kilos, and the well-built Arunian hillman carries double mat and charges by die kilo —two hundred rupees a day to carry to Num. From where the trail bifurcates from the road at Sedua, it would take the porter five days up to Num and three days back.
There is a porter surplus in Pallo Kirat, and severe undercutting among the bhariya syndicates. The thekedars assure me that they are up to the job, and they will import from as far as the Far West if there is any porter deficit.
Two hundred and fifty crorcs, just for the whirly birds! For a fraction, die Dhankuta thekedars are willing to mobilise. This would be Lhc largest develop¬ment windfall ever, and the best way for Kathmandu Valley to pay back village Nepal for the decades of bralnnaloot. And just watch the Fat Cats and meir cohort of international accesso-ries starve, while the villages light up.
Either that, or sing a lullabye and put Baby Arun to sleep