With external financing entering Nepal especially after 1951, aid policies and planning models have increasingly built upon the monolithic and quintessential western construct of development trying to eradicate ‘traditional’ obstacles that were blocking ‘development’. This representation implies a lack of development prior to entry of foreign aid in Nepal. In fact, aid documents usually begin by stating the country being in a ‘blank state’, where there is no ‘development’ and a ‘…text -book of opportunity’ available for donors to implement their projects (Fujikura, 1996). However, this paper argues that engagements with ideas and practices of modernity and some extent of scientific and technological advancement were prevalent in Nepal prior to 1951.

This paper argues that the conventional textbook approach of the account of development in Nepal does not take into cognizance the efforts made to modernize during the first half of the twentieth century.

Development is portrayed as something that began only from 1951 onwards. The paper argues that though the Nepali term for development, ‘bikas’, has indeed been popularised from the 1950s onwards, the general absence of this term in pre-1951 Nepal should not be construed to imply an absence of development initiatives.

The paper notes that the state had in fact undertaken modernity-informed decisions in pre-1951 Nepal: it examines two cases to explore this further. It explores what the Rana rulers did in forestry and in water supply during the first half of the twentieth century. In doing so, it explores the terminologies the rulers used in introducing new forestry management systems or laying out new water supply networks. Exploring the genesis and trajectory of terms that refer to development in the Nepali language – terms such as ‘pragati’, ‘unnati’, and ‘bikas’ – the paper examines the terminologies and logic/reasoning the Rana rulers used when introducing modernity – be these in setting up new forest management systems or laying out new water supply pipes.

The paper concludes that though development initiatives had taken place in the pre-1951 Nepali state, development was far from being the state ideology – a status it received only from the 1950s onwards. During the first half of the twentieth century, though the state was engaging with modernity, it was doing so in a context where it did not adhere to democracy. Though the state made attempts at introducing modernity in specific spheres of life such as in introducing forestry management systems or laying out water supply networks, in the absence of the recognition of the principle of democracy, which in turn implies the principle of equality and equality of all before the eyes of the law, there was a limit to how much changes a state that was based on the principle of hierarchy could introduce*. These modernity-informed initiatives led to the enhancement of the living standards of the aristocracy or their clientele class, not the majority of the citizenry. What this further implies is that development presumes democracy; only in a state where all citizens are, in principle, equal, would it make sense to provide services to all.

*Legitimate political changes during Rana times could accrue only from the ‘Roll-kram’ – the document that stated the principles of succession to various positions of office beginning with the office of the Prime Minister downwards.