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The clever metalsmith

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017
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Akal Man Nakarmi (pictured below) passed away last week at age 71 virtually unnoticed by a nation preoccupied with the constitution and elections. Self-effacing and shy, it was just like the man to slip away quietly without letting anyone know.

akal man nakarmi

His first name and surname described him accurately. Akal means ‘clever’, and Nakarmi is the Newari occupational name for traditional metalsmiths. He was clever with his hands, could work on iron, copper and bronze and shape them into anything as if it was wax.

I first visited Nakarmi’s family-owned workshop called Kathmandu Metal Industries in Chhetrapati with his partner-in-innovation, Swiss engineer Andreas Bachmann, in the 1980s. We walked through a warren of narrow alleys where the sun never shined. We stooped through a low door and entered a courtyard strewn with transformers, turbines and tools.

Nakarmi’s ancestors crafted copper and iron utensils, forged statues of deities. Bachmann and Nakarmi had been working on using the same lost-wax technology to make bronze Pelton turbines for micro-hydroelectric power generation. At one point, there was such high demand for these Peltric Sets that Nakarmi’s workshop couldn’t keep up with demand.

Within a decade there were more than 3,000 micro-hydro plants all over Nepal. Farmers rushed to install them with soft loans from the Agriculture Development Bank, which tried to do for electricity what it had successfully done with indigenously-designed biogas plants.

A whole section of Nakarmi’s workshop was devoted to an assembly-line for the Multi-purpose Power Units (MPPU) which converted traditional water mills by upgrading the wooden paddles with more efficient curved metal blades and ball-bearings. The systems not just processed food, it also produced power through an induction generator. Within a decade, nearly half the 30,000 or so traditional ghattas (pictured below) in Nepal had been converted into MPPUs and were even exported to Bhutan, Ladakh and Sri Lanka.

ghatta 1

Bachmann and Nakarmi produced a monograph in 1983 in which they provided meticulous drawings to show how traditional water mills could be upgraded and upscaled for rural electrification and agro-based industries. The MPPU kit came in three easy-to-assemble modules. Farmers could not just grind corn, but run threshing machines, saw mills and lathes during the day time and have electricity at night.

Nakarmi won the Rolex Award  and the Right Livelihood Award, but he kept quiet about them.  He preferred to work away in his workshop right till the end of his life. “All I did was use indigenous knowledge of Nepali farmers, and I just made the system more efficient by adding ball bearings and shaping the paddles,” he told me once.

ghatta 2

Nakarmi never spoke long enough to expound on his philosophy for life, but if he did perhaps it would come closest to the ‘Small Is Beautiful’ concept put forward by E F Schumacher in the 1960s: small, decentralised and self-contained energy systems that do not waste resources, do not damage the environment, are cheap and can be built and maintained locally.

Schumacher showed that human civilisation can reduce its ecological footprint with the use of appropriate and benevolent technologies that do not waste the planet’s finite resources. The path ahead for humankind, he said, was to do a lot with less. Nakarmi did not talk about it, but he designed practical solutions and set an example for the world long before we had even heard of peak oil or climate change. If we had heeded Nakarmi perhaps we would not have to suffer power cuts for so long.

Today in Nepal, we have moved into the age of national pride projects. Soon, there will be high dams on Nepal’s major rivers that feed power to ever-rising consumer demand in the cities and maybe even for export. Grid power has replaced many of the micro-hydros and MPPUs that Nakarmi helped build.

But for a time, during the innocent early days of development when Nepal was still dark, Akal Man Nakarmi was a beacon of light that showed us the path to eco- and people-friendly development.

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