The privilege of having a purpose

RASHI MAHARJAN, Daayitwa-Worldlink Fellow 2022

“What is your purpose?”

For our ancestors, there might have been an easy answer, but for a generation like ours with choices and possibilities ever so abundant, one would really have to sit down and ask, “What is my purpose?” The nature of this question is rather urban-centric, if I go to Karnali province, where the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) is the highest across provinces at 39.5%, I would probably realize that rather than searching for a purpose in life, some people are mostly concerned with sustaining life and worried about how to make ends meet. This is why it becomes a luxury, to not have to worry about the immediate present and have ample time to foray into the possibilities of one’s purpose. This quest for knowing my purpose has given me one of the best experiences in life, and being a Daayitwa Fellow can be considered one. Being assigned to research on “Studying the Possible Frontiers of Optimum Utilization of Rural Telecommunication Development Fund (RTDF)”, I am getting an opportunity to dive in deeper to understand the ‘Digital Divide’ between urban and rural areas, which again reminds me of the privilege that enables me to write a blog about purpose. To conclude what my purpose is, is not the objective of this blog, but the emphasis is on the privilege to search for one. 

When we search about policies, read and analyze them, we are introduced to a common vernacular. Especially in the field of ICT for Rural development, bridging the digital divide, cent percent internet accessibility, connectivity, affordable and quality broadband services surface around the area. To make it easier for the government to solely focus on connectivity and accessibility, Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) created a Rural Telecommunication Development Fund (RTDF) that would accumulate 2% of the gross annual income generated by the licensed Telecom Operators. The inception of this act dates back to 1997, but it still feels as if in comparison with the global world, we have a long way to go. As the World Bank report on South Asia’s Digital Opportunity states, the path to a digital future needs a ‘whole of country’ approach and that is where my research topic fits in holistically. However, the same report states that South Asia has seen remarkable growth in 4G coverage over the last five years with Nepal being one of the exceptions. While most of South Asia is enjoying cent percent population coverage for 4G networks, we are slowly catching up. 

Although true that had this fund been used efficiently enough, there would be no opportunity costs in terms of catching up with the global world, but significant progress has been made. The two major projects under the RTDF have been operational. The first project, Broadband Backbone Network, is supposed to lay a Fibre Optic (FO) along a mid-hill highway to connect to the headquarters of each province. The second project, Broadband Access Network, set out to establish connections between local government hospitals, community schools, and government offices. Among the other countries in South Asia, Sri Lanka and Nepal are the only countries that provide fixed broadband at, or below the threshold set by the UN Broadband Commission standing at 2% average GNI per capita for 5GB of fixed broadband data. It is more expensive for land-locked countries to pay for international links as the cost of transit is very high. This is due to the poor competition among service providers at international borders and the reluctance of the government and national backbone providers to enter cost-efficient long-term leasing agreements.

Till now, the discussion seems to have shifted from searching one’s purpose to an explanation of the creation of RTDF and the problems related to inaction and infrastructure, but there is a close link. One of the privileges of being a Daaytiwa Fellow is to be a part of important policy dialogues, where we get to address important issues such as women entrepreneurship, youth mobilization, and economic growth to name a few. What makes the policy dialogue intriguing is the fact that it is moderated and paneled by individuals who are pioneers in the field they represent. In one such instance, I got to sit and listen to the very first policy dialogue “ Promoting Women-Led Indigenous Enterprise to Accelerate Economic Growth in Nepal '' where Dr. Yamuna Ghale, Food Security Expert at the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development so precisely put forward the absence of a digital market and digital means in rural areas to reach the headquarters, capital or international platforms to sell their product. She voiced out that the female entrepreneurs want to connect with rural entrepreneurs around the globe to create a community where they can learn from their experiences and wisdom, or even just connect to youtube and learn whatever it is in their interest.

Let us imagine a certain Sunita living in Sudurpaschim province, she wants to be a local entrepreneur who wants to open a Dragon Fruit farm, a passion project she thought of when she visited Kathmandu. She has a typical Nepali family now where she is the daughter-in-law who has almost all of the household chores on her shoulders. She gets two hours of time in the afternoon when her kids are off to school, to follow her passion for her farm. She did plant some seeds, but they are infested by insects and her mother-in-law keeps warning her about the failures of her passion project and the irreparable loss. It might sound like a simple solution for us where she can google or youtube for the possible remedies, but when we think from her shoes, she is not from a place that is connected with broadband services. Now, what is stopping her from following her purpose? Network inaccessibility. Frustrated, Sunita gives up on her hope for the business, and her kids are back from school. At a time when students in Kathmandu have started advanced Q-Basic, her kids have never submitted a word file document as their school assignment. When schools in Kathmandu assign their students to make videos on SDGs, her kids are waiting for a computer to be installed by the government. What is stopping her kids from searching for new satellites on NASA’s website? Why can't they tap on the possibilities of being an astronaut, a philosopher, or a researcher? Network inaccessibility. It is no secret that more than half of the population resides in rural areas of Nepal, yet the digital divide is ever so sharp and more than 50% of internet penetration is from the cities of Nepal. 

One can truly search for their purpose when they have all the opportunities at their disposal. Simply setting up a school, a few healthcare posts, government offices, and project-based entrepreneurship training is not enough for today’s age. Maybe there was a time when the aforementioned contributions made a difference, but in the era of post covid, the time has come for our government to strengthen its dedication to build back better through innovation, digitalization, e-commerce, and connectivity. This is why there is a crucial need to understand the importance of digital infrastructure so that Sunita can follow her purpose and pave a way for her children to follow suit. A nation where everyone has an equal opportunity to pursue their passion is ‘happy’ in its true essence. Until we get to the point where everyone has this choice, the ones who have the privilege now should take the responsibility of creating spaces, and platforms and connecting the gap when it is identified. So the final question is not what your purpose is, but do you have the privilege to search and pursue your purpose? 

For An Enterprising Nepal