Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
Power for the powerhungry


The primal fear of the dark is a harsh reality for many Nepalis, in part because we literally live in the dark ages. The promise that hydropower will lead the country towards development and light appears tantalisingly close, yet too good to be true.

The benefits of hydroelectricity are obvious. But our valleys are densely populated and our mountains are fragile, our needs are many, and resources limited. Our fast-flowing rivers that descend from the Himalaya to the tarai seem nature-built for generating power and nd for the power hungry.

For politicians, this has always been a huge potential wealth-generating avenue. "If only we could exploit our water resources," has been the refrain of Nepal's politicians and planners for half a century.

Hydropower is a victim of the rent-seeking mentality of many middle-class Nepalis who borrow to build a house which is then rented out, since a guaranteed monthly income supposedly affords a life of leisure. That's exactly what hydropower has come to mean, generating the myth of the hydro-dollar, which in reality fleeces consumers and enriches the rulers.

We're told to follow Bhutan on hydropower. But the Chukha model only works for countries like Bhutan. It is financed, built, operated, and managed on a colonial model by New Delhi. The Bhutani elite made peace with this unequal bargain in exchange for Indian support for the world's largest refugee crisis in terms of proportion of a country's population. Thimpu calls it "maintaining the proportion of Drukpas and Lhotsampas within manageable limits" and has India's firm support, and Bhutani refugees rot in Beldangi.

In reality, hydropower is technology-based, capital-intensive, and risk-prone. It involves difficult negotiations and hard bargains, the success of which hinges on mature technocrats, responsible political decision-makers, and a stable government.

There are lessons from the past. In the rush to finalise the Mahakali package, the political class of this country disgraced itself so badly, a section of the population saw salvation in nihilistic Maoist ideology.

Mega hydroprojects are a hallucination of the hungry. Hydropower isn't a panacea for the economic ills of our country. And the Himalaya is too young, the Mahabharat ranges are crumbling, and the tarai too precious to bear the burden of dams on the scale of China's Three Gorges. When we do build, our reservoirs would have to be designed, constructed, and maintained to withstand 8.5 magnitude earthquakes, so a dam burst doesn't submerge half of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Besides, Himalayan rivers are not water, but mud paste. The Kosi carries the highest sediment load of any major river in the world. Yet we design reservoirs as if for tame rivulets in the Alps. The future holds climate change, glacial lake outbursts, and uncertainty.

The knowledge-base for mega projects in the Himalaya has to be created by starting small and building upon experiences. At present, the state's delivery capacity is depleted due to institutional collapse brought about by the royal regime's mal-governance. Bank defaulters have exhausted the stamina of the economy. The over-enthusiastic ministers of the transitional government will have enough such challenges as they negotiate peace with the Maoists. But no matter how strong the pressure from power brokers, they shouldn't finalise hydro-deals in a hurry. They can-and must-wait until we have a proper constitution and a properly-constituted government.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)