Dial Nepal for a short sharp shock

NEW DELHI - People in Kathmandu are afraid of answering their telephones these days. It is not bad news they fear, but a huge jolt of electricity, strong enough to kill a man and melt a fax machine, writes Tim McGirk.

The Nepal Telecommunications Corporation issued emergency bulletins warning people not to pick up the telephone if there is a long, insistent ring. Anyone who does could get zapped by 'an accidental connection between the telephone and a power line' of more than 600 volts.

The city-wide alert was sounded after one man, Shyam Krishna Dawadi, was electrocuted by picking up his receiver. Kathmandu newspapers said he did not die instantly; Mr Dawadi, a devout Hindu, dragged himself to a nearby temple before he died. Over the past few weeks, five other telephones have burnt and a fax machine was rendered to the consistency of yak butter.

Yug Gauchan switched on his fax machine in his travel agency before leaving for lunch. 'I'd locked my office, and my staff heard the telephone ring continuously for about 30 seconds. There was a loud bang, and smoke. They broke into my office and my new fax machine was in flames. It melted,' he said. 'I was lucky. If I was there, I would have picked up the receiver.'

Gajendra Bora, the deputy manager of the telephone company, said the accidents were caused by telephone cables crossing with high-voltage power lines, which share the same poles. What the company cannot explain is why these rogue connections are happening now after many years of painless telephone calls.

Mr Gauchan complains of the shocking insensitivity of the telephone and electricity companies. 'Right after it happened, I rang the electricity board in a panic. They said it was an emergency for the telephone company. So I called them. They came around - three days later - and said it was a problem for the electricity people. I'm a reasonable man, but this is too much,' he said.