Faced with Kathmandu's reluctance to devolve political power to the grassroots, Nepal's rural communities have started quite literally taking power into their own hands.
The remote village of Chhisti in Baglung district has no roads, and a footbridge across the Kali Gandaki is its lifeline to rest of the world. But it has electricity because the villagers knew better than to wait for the government.
PICS: ANURAG ACHARYA
One of the advantages of community management and distribution of power is that there is minimum pilferage, and voluntary monitoring of the leakages. Up to 60 per cent of the power in Tarai districts and Bhaktapur are stolen by hooking up illegally to transmission lines.
Each household pays a minimum charge for 20 units at Rs 4 per unit, and this is less than what households pay in urban areas. The money is used by the community to maintain the distribution system. Although the village falls under the rotational power cuts of the grid, the electricity is of higher quality than power from microhydro projects.
Community managed rural electrification started in the late 1990s when the people of south Lalitpur district came together to connect their isolated villages to the national grid. One of the pioneers was Dilli Ghimire, who felt that access to quality electricity is a basic right and the state had the responsibility to provide the service.
"After all, the rivers originate and flow through our villages so the people here have as much right to its electricity as the cities," Ghimire said, walking up to Chhisti recently along the banks of the Kali Gandaki.
However, rural electrification is not cost effective when sparsely populated villages are spread out over difficult and often inaccessible terrain.
"We have lived most of our life in darkness, but we wanted our children to grow up in light," says Nirmala Poudel, another member of Chhisti's electricity user group. Her daughters Anjana, 7, and Asmita, 11, both love watching health related programs on TV and say they want to become doctors and treat fellow villagers.
The government has realised that the long term benefits of rural electrification cannot be outweighed by simple arithmetic of profit and loss. Bylaws passed in 2005 require the government's Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) to foot 90 per cent of the cost of providing electricity to villages.
Even though Chhisti has grid power, 600 households here still depend on a nearby microhydro plant for electricity. A small policy change is all that is needed to ensure that electricity from thousands of microhydro plants all over the country is fed into the national grid. This could add up to 10MW of power if it can connect small hydroelectric stations all over Nepal and help reduce NEA's technical losses by improving transmission in rural areas.
Today, there are over 239,000 households accessing power through 227 electricity user groups across 47 districts in the country and their numbers are growing. Nepal's community led rural electrification movement is turning into yet another success story, not because of the government, but in spite of it.
The wooden electricity poles supplied by the NEA in Chhisti have become useless in less than five years. The poles were supposed to be chemically treated to last for at least 10 years. The adjoining village of Jaidi in Parbat district faces similar problems.
NEA is the responsible body for procurement and supply of materials including electric poles. But the communities complain that the supplied materials are substandard and have been urging the government to transfer the responsibility to the user groups instead.