Nepali Times
Power to the people


Transormer built by the Electricity Users Group in Bhardeu, South Lalitpur
Nepal's successful experiment with community electrification, which has connected 135,000 households to the grid in just seven years, is facing a major setback with the dissolution of the Community Rural Electrification Department. On 13 October, just before the start of the Dasain holidays, a meeting of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) abruptly dissolved the department. It was justified as part of a restructuring drive in NEA. But the move has not just created an institutional vacuum, pushing the work of about 300 electrification user groups across the country into limbo. More pertinently for NEA, it has allowed for its greater control over the consumer-led program, sparking fears that NEA's endemic corruption will now seep into the movement.

Under the community-led model, user groups partnered with the government to bring electricity to villages that were off the grid. Communities took charge of distribution, maintenance, and even shared 20 per cent of construction costs, with government providing the rest. These community-managed systems are so well administered that pilferage is non-existent and most are making decent profits. This is in stark contrast to the badly managed and nearly insolvent NEA. Following electrification under this model, schools have introduced computers, health posts have started refrigerating vaccines, and small-scale industries are being set up.

The dissolution of the department, however, has put the future of the program in jeopardy. "Consumers have invested more than Rs 750 million so far, and 93,000 households are awaiting connection. We have managed to keep the program alive but there is a great deal of uncertainty about the road ahead," says Dilli Ghimire, Chairperson of National Association of Community Electrification Users in Nepal (NACEUN).

Tanka Kafle shows the financial details of his user group. 2000 member households have already submitted more than Rs 4 million to the 20-80 fund for electrification.
The cracks are already beginning to show. Tanka Kafle, along with over a dozen others, has travelled all the way from Tandi in Morang and has been making the rounds of NEA and the Energy Ministry for a month now to get back money belonging to his community. The Aangdim Sewa Users Group that he belongs to collected Rs 4.1 million five years ago and deposited it into the 20-80 fund along with the government's contribution. But instead of paying the contractor responsible for construction, NEA used the money to pay its own staff. Now the contractor has refused to continue work and the villagers are angry and tired of waiting. "I have been held captive three times by the villagers. I can't go back before I get the money back and the contractors agree to work," Kafle says.

Ultimately Kafle may be one of the luckier ones. Finance Minister Bharat Mohan Adhikari, who is also from Morang, has apparently promised to find him Rs 5 million. Never mind the unknown provenance of said Rs 5 million, what about other user groups who may have already invested their communities' savings?

Dilli Ghimire is indignant. "We have never faced such problems before. With the department, we could at least be sure that the consumers' money would be used where it was meant to be. NEA is so unmanageably corrupt that any program it handles is bound to fail," he says. Narayan Gyawali, General Secretary of NACEUN, is equally clear in his condemnation. "There are no two ways about it. The department was dissolved suddenly so that those in power can use the 20-80 fund for their interests. Why else would a successfully running program be interrupted?"

There may be good reason to believe this is already happening. This year, consumers deposited Rs 160 million into the 20-80 fund, which should have attracted Rs 640 million in government funding for community electrification. Since the department's dissolution, however, just Rs 310 million has been allocated. "The remaining amount will now be spent according to the whims of the ministers and officials," Ghimire says.

When asked about the allegations, joint spokesperson at the Ministry of Energy Purusottam Acharya conceded that he had no idea what transpired in the fateful meeting that terminated the department of community electrification. Secretary at the Ministry of Energy, Shital Babu Regmi, declined to comment.

Faced with crippling power cuts in the capital, it is easy to forget about the 55 per cent of rural Nepal that isn't connected to the grid. But community electrification is one of Nepal's few success stories, and high-level visits from Bhutan and Laos indicated international interest in the model. By forcibly incorporating a community-driven program into the centralised and ineffective institution that is NEA, the government is guaranteeing that its success will
be short-lived.

Power sharing, Nepali style, #512
Making light work, #319

1. beeb
Our experiences with several projects including the rural co-operatives, community managed forests, schools, hospitals, community led development efforts and so on prove that they are the best models for development and modernization of nepal, especially the majority of its people and places. Despite that, why such stupid and harmful decisions like cancelling the community electrification process are taken is beyond my imagination. The only reasons I can think of are some vested interests, or the desire to savor the money deposited by people.

Well done Rubeena- i was unaware of these developments in electrification, including the success of the community model. Right now, load-shedding is the biggest problem (bigger than constitution) facing our people- yet something like this was never known by most of us.

What can be done to change and improve things? Is there any way we can undo the harm done?

2. Chyangba Sherpa
Thanks Rubeena. I recall, the community forest project was a story of great success in Nepal and we were very proud of it. There were other achievements as you have said, the rural electrification but this stupid government have proven since a lone time back- they have heads without brains. I recall, almost more than 30 years ago, there was a micro- hydro project that was operating and was installed, for the first time, with major components manufactured and assembled in Nepal by Nepali engineers and technicians in Gajuri, Dhadhing. Where we are now? Can we, the citizen of this beautiful country, still hope for the better future?

3. Party Peedit
Thanks, Rubeenajee,
Wonderful story. A google search on 'community electricity Nepal' showed this unknown little website: It seems to be that of a national association of community electricity users' association in Nepal. The irony of why a "communist-socialist" government would disband the community electricity department and an "even more communist" then opposition and now in government party would not raise a squeak of protest seems to be related to their need to fill their party trade union coffers with 'gains' from tender-bender corruption as per old ways of doing business, something impossible with community-led electrification!

4. Harry Subba
Agar accha kam ho ga to inke  pet bharnewala nahi hoga.  isiliye sab achha kam ko dhota karnahi padega taki ye chor logka pet bharta rahega.
 Ahir ham sab chor hai.
 Abhito chor ka raj hai.
Gadi sarkari ye bhut purba log ke ghar ghar me, kya esse bada dakati kyahai. koi sabdakosh dekho. Panch sau se jyada gadi jabarjasti uthalegaye hai.
Thanks Rubeena fo highlighting this issue.

5. mangoman
good job rubyna...

6. Prashanta
It is so sad hear abt the dissolution of the Community Rural Electrification Department. The consumers group, the civil society and the media should put constant pressure on NEA to provide an answer to it. Today, access to eletricity paves the basic path towards development. Incidents like this should not be let go.

7. hange
Stop the NEA!  Those morons should not be allowed to touch anything.  Why fix what's not only not broken, but is actually working so well??

8. paul horrocks
Rubeena - good investigative journalism in the public interest ! Hope the authorities take notice. Keep up the campaign.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)