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When villages plug in

Aditya BATRA

05 / 2010

In Nepal, lost in the chaos of political upheavals, a silent revolution is afoot. In remote villages of this mountainous and energy-starved country people are demanding their right to electricity. They say electricity is a national good; everyone must have a right to it.

This is not to say Nepal has enough electricity for all. It is crippled by hours of power cuts. But the question is: if there is some, who should get it? Only the urban Nepal connected to the grid or the entire country? A notification offered an answer.

It provided the way to distribute energy on demand from communities, who would share the burden of its management. The new arrangement is bringing gains to the country, where transmission losses are high. This consumer movement is fast reshaping the ways in which electricity is distributed and managed across rural Nepal.

From a mother’s group in north Pokhara to a forest users’ group in Bangesal to a Thame Bijli Company that has trained 11 villagers as linesmen and meter readers, people are leading from the front to manage power. But the challenge has only just begun. Nepal’s hunger for electricity remains. The big projects it planned are on paper. The country’s electricity generation plans are coming full circle. A few years ago Nepal was the donor’s dream as far as micro-electricity projects—hydel to solar—were concerned. They were, and are, being tried out with varying success. But people wanted reliable power and also the equal right to state-generated electricity.

The electricity rights movement brought the grid to villages. It can displace the micro-generation projects, while bringing more power cuts than power. Can Nepal integrate decentralized and centralized generation through the grid? This grand experiment will bear lessons on new energy futures.

Aditya Batra travels to villages in Nepal and meets the people behind the idea and the movement.

Community electrification of Balua village

Some six years ago, people in Balua were fed up waiting for electricity to reach the village, 50 km from Kathmandu. They had witnessed the glacial pace at which the government utility, Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA), was extending the grid in adjoining Kharel Thok village development committee.

« It took them 17 years to cover 400 households. We were determined to prevent such delays, » said Bhairab Prasad Sedhai, a resident of Balua in Kavre district. The village desperately needed electricity to irrigate the fertile valley’s famed garlic fields. The grid was just five km away in Paanchkhal. They knew they could do better.

Sedhai had heard of a scheme that could speed up the process: any registered body could extend the grid on its own by contributing 20 per cent of the cost. In 2004, he and several other residents formed the Devbhumi Balua Samudayak Grameen Vidyutekaran Upbhogata Samiti (community rural electrification consumer committee), applied for extension of the grid and mobilized the community to contribute money for the 20 per cent cost. They raised Nepali Rs 16.44 lakh (1 NRe=0.60 Indian rupee) from donations by people, loans and grants from the village and district development committees. It took the consumer committee only three years to electrify 400 households.

The committee was deeply involved throughout the process. Construction began after the executing agency NEA, its contractor and the user group signed an agreement. The contractor was paid in instalments, similar to a construction-linked payment plan, subject to the approval of the user group. The user group closely scrutinized the pace of work and quality of materials used.

Self reliance

At first running the system seemed daunting, said Sedhai, now the committee president. It involved managing the 11 kva transmission poles and lines, household wiring, repair and maintenance of one 50 kva and three 100 kva transformers, installing meters, and taking on the full basket of customer service functions, such as meter reading, billing, repair and accounts. All this in a community with no trained manager or electrical engineer.

Yet, today the committee has four employees—two technical staff (one a woman trained in house wiring) who learned the trade hands-on when they worked with the contractor, an accountant, and one biller who doubles as an office assistant.

Erasing loss

A small brick-lined room serves as the committee’s office. The walls are crowded with names of customers and their payment status, a board listing committee members, the latest audited accounts, posters exhorting safety precautions—and tangled wires nailed to the wall with hand-scribbled notes pasted beneath.

This last—a metal hook attached to wires—is ‘evidence’, common tools of the electricity pilferer’s trade. The pasted notes identify the name and offence of the wrong-doer.

Punishments vary from the mild to the exemplary. A small, first-time offender was let off with a warning, while a school was fined NRs 1,100 for using an unmetered connection to run its two computers for two days. In no case will the committee suffer a loss. The offender has to pay the difference between the bulk meter reading and the cumulative readings from metered households.

Shaming is a powerful deterrent. Take the case of pilferer Sangram Lama. “He’s not able to even walk across the front of this office because he’s feeling so guilty,” said Bhairab, with a wide grin. “But rules are rules. Until he owns up and pays the penalty, we will not take the notice off the walls.”

Losses from theft are naturally close to zero, in marked contrast with 12-15 per cent loss NEA bears from payment defaults and theft alone. Studies show 1 per cent reduction in system loss equals 7 MW of added installed capacity.

The committee buys electricity from the government-owned utility at the bulk rate of NRs 3.60 per unit. The lowest slab it charges for a household connection is NRs 80 per month for 20 units. Tariffs set by the electricity user group cannot exceed national tariffs—NRs 6.70 per unit for up to 50 units; heavier users are metered and billed directly by NEA. Electricity used for commercial purposes invites a higher slab rate. Some heavy electricity users, such as farmers who run pump sets for irrigation, are given special consideration.

 

The committee keeps meticulous records, and all accounts are audited and public. In 2008-09, it paid dues of NRs 4,91,507 to NEA, and earned NRs 7,85,182 from the sale of electricity. After deducting its expenses the committee’s accounts show a profit of NRs 1,25,882, a bank deposit of NRs 1,23,882, and NRs 2,000 in cash.

This, after setting aside NRs 25,100 for a multipurpose rural development cooperative to start a savings and loan facility for members and to kick start other development activities. Plans are on to convert the committee into a cooperative, once the additional 200 households in the neighbouring villages are electrified. “There’s a sense of ownership in a cooperative as all members share the profits but take equal responsibility for development work,” Bhairab said. A cooperative also makes it easier to start savings and loan schemes and channel funds for other productive uses.

‘Like food without salt’

Community-led rural electrification has a singular purpose: to catalyse income generation. « Without productive end-use, electricity is like food without salt, » said Bhairab.

In Devbhumi Balua, entrepreneurship has closely followed electrification. In three years since the grid reached the area, six rice mills, eight carpentry sheds, 10 poultry farms and 22 irrigation pumps and lift irrigation schemes have sprung up. It makes eminent business sense to promote day-time electricity demand: business activities are charged a steeper tariff, and the surplus can be invested in other income-enhancing activities. The committee now plans to purchase life insurance and medical coverage for its technical workers.

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