Damber Nepali was born in Jagate in Bhaktapur, and was educated in an orphanage. Excelling in his studies, he went on to do his PhD in the United States in hydropower development. Today, at age 52, Nepali has shown what Nepalis can do when they have vision, drive, integrity and willpower.
Six years after launching the Chilime hydropower project, this indigenously-designed, locally-built and Nepali-financed powerplant has started supplying electricity to the national grid. The road to Chilime wasn't easy, but Nepali's patience and perseverance paid off. A few more people like Damber Nepali in every arena of national life, and we are sure, Nepal would be a different place. Rajendra Dahal spoke to Damber Nepali recently. Translated excerpts:
Rajendra Dahal: Why Chilime, and why you?
Damber Nepali: I had just returned from the US to join the Arun III project. We were asked to look at thermal power until Arun came onstream. But we started surveying rivers that could generate upwards of five megawatt, and went from Ilam to Darchula. We came across Chilime, a tributary of the Trisuli. It looked ideal, lots of water, a good head and we were happy.
But we didn't tell anyone except the NEA's managing director. We'd learnt this the hard way: the best project gets hijacked by higher-ups.
We proposed that Chilime should be developed by a separate private venture and to invest the pension of NEA employees. Managing director Shanta Bahadur Pun encouraged us and got the board to approve the proposal.
Who did the design and financing?
We, the NEA engineers, did everything ourselves. We even attempted something never tried before: digging a 6m diameter tunnel that was 195m long. This boosted our self-confidence. We'd initially estimated the project would cost Rs 1.2 billion, but there were over-runs. The Chinese contractor couldn't do the job, so we replaced them with India's Larsen and Turbo. The delay pushed the cost up to Rs 2.32 billion. We financed it with equity and loan. NEA has 51 percent share, 25 percent is owned by NEA employees and 24 percent will be allocated for sale to the public.
Will people buy Chilime shares in these uncertain times?
We need to raise Rs 479 million from the public and employees, but no worries. We will be giving 10 percent dividends in the first year, and we can pay back all loans and investment in four to five years by selling electricity. Chilime generates 137 million units of electricity a year, each unit costs Rs 2.19 to produce, and our agreement with the NEA was to sell each unit at Rs 3 beginning in 1996, escalating by eight percent every year for 12 years. The costs aren't going up much, and we can already sell each unit for Rs 5. The figures look good.
Did everything turn out as expected?
We said we will build it with Nepali money, we did it. We said we will design it ourselves, we did that, too. We said we will sell cheap electricity, and it is relatively cheap.
We said Chilime will be the beginning of a process, and we are already looking at building Upper Chilime next. Yes, the power is not as cheap as we planned. The delays put costs up.
Would you say Chilime is a model project for Nepal?
It can be, but we can't say that just on the basis of one project. After Upper Chilime, I think we can be certain. We have the expertise, the experience, the financing and we have the confidence. Money is the least of our problems-banks are lining up for financing, the pension fund is ready. We've stopped worrying about money.
What are the lessons of Chilime, then?
Those who used to say there is no money in Nepal, we need to borrow from abroad, have been proved wrong. If we need foreign engineers, we'll get them, otherwise we'll do it ourselves. We must now scale up, and go for Chilime's elder brother: Upper Tama Kosi. The geology is good, and it's just a question of whether we can raise up to Rs 22 billion locally. I think with the success of Chilime we can convince Nepalis to invest in hydropower projects. After all, Nepali workers overseas are sending home Rs 700 billion every year, we just need to divert Rs 5 billion every year. With rupee financing, we also obviate the danger of rupee depreciation for dollar denominated loans.
What were the main difficulties you faced with Chilime?
They tried to get me out of the project many times because the higher-ups wanted to give the project to the private sector.
They hassled me over the license, and they dropped a lot of hints. But I am the type that doesn't understand hints. Maybe just as well. Anyway, Bhola Chalise was the MD, and he helped me out.
So how did you save the project?
The biggest force were NEA employees. We were honest, so our morale was high, and we were proud that we had embarked on a project that would benefit the nation. I found this patriotism in the contractors, too, they didn't try to compromise on quality. As much as possible we employed local people, we didn't displace anyone and today every VDC in the area has electricity.
This isn't just another job for me. I grew up in an orphanage, and I can't bring myself to work solely for personal benefit. I did it for my organisation and my country. And I will continue to do so. If I had become corrupt, this project wouldn't have been completed.
Have you met anyone else like you, ones who see beyond personal gain?
The NEA MD, Bhola Chalise, was one. Shailaja Acharya, who laid the foundation stone of Chilime, she was very positive about projects like these. Shanta Bahadur Pun was also a very positive director, but they didn't let him survive in NEA.