Nepali Times
Let there be light


Despite 50 years of planning and with one of the world's highest per capita hydropower generation capacity, only 15 percent of Nepalis have access to electricity.

The government has finally realised there is no way it can get the grid to everyone in the short-term, so it has encouraged local communities to generate their own electricity and connect it to the national grid. Last year, the government announced another ambitious plan to get villages to raise 20 percent of the capital required to construct a distribution network that they can run to get power from the national grid.

That proposal for a community electricity distribution program got such overwhelming response from all over the country that the government is having problem finding the money it promised to pick up 80 percent of the cost.

When it announced the proposal last August, officials say they had expected, at the most 25, applications a year. In the last five months alone, there have been 160 applicants.

The Community Rural Electrification Department (CRED) has already approved more than two dozen applications and has even signed agreements with seven for building the distribution network. The department already has deposits of around Rs 10 million from 39 communities, leaving the government to match the fund with nearly Rs 70 million. It doesn't seem to have the cash.

Has the community power program become too successful? "That is a huge challenge the government has to overcome," says department director Ram Chandra Pandey. "Going by the increase in demand, it will not be easy to accomplish." Communities which have paid their share are keeping fingers crossed. Even the South Lalitpur Rural Electricity Cooperatives, which has been enthusiastically building infrastructure for the past six years, doubts the government is in a position to realise such a vast amount.

The cooperative has already collected Rs 4.2 million to prepare the distribution network in 19 VDCs in south Lalitpur. It is anticipating nearly Rs 17 million from the government. "We have been waiting for the money for the last six months," says the Cooperative Chairman Dilli Prasad Ghimire. "We doubt if we will receive it." If that is the case with a recognised community program so close to the capital, what is the fate of the new entrants in
remote areas?

Finance Minister Prakash Chandra Lohani is upbeat. He has been trumpeting the popularity of the scheme, and told us: "At a time when certain elements have been destroying electricity infrastructure, people are building them. We will back them in full. There will be no shortage of funds for this work." Finance Ministry officials told us that the government will earmark Rs 350 million for the rural electrification scheme this year.

But, NEA officials say that the money is actually meant for the government's regular and on-going rural electrification project, not for the new program. Lohani admitted that there will be a new allocation for the community electrification part. But even that may not be enough to meet the demand for matching funds as the 20 percent deposits of local communities add up.

For instance, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project is negotiating with CRED for a bulk distribution network to electrify villages. The locals will come up with nearly Rs 500 million which may not be that difficult for these communities since they have income from tourism. But can a cash-strapped Kathmandu come up with its share?

NEA officials are at a loss about how to deal with it. They have six applications from Gulmi district, among 18 with which it has already signed agreements to build distribution networks. "The question is if one area takes the major chunk of the budget allotment, is there going to be money left for the others?" says Pandey.

The government has also committed to fund Rs 75,000 for locally-built hydropower plants upto 500KW. So far, the NEA has received only three applicants but if the number goes up, the fund crunch will be hardest on the government. Guided by the idea of unbundling its generation, transmission and distribution components, the NEA came up with the idea of involving communities into getting power from the national grid and taking care of the system by themselves.

That way, they reasoned, distribution would expand rapidly and once villagers took over management, overhead expenses and a whopping 23 percent leakage rate would decrease. Also, with the bulk distribution price fixed at a minimum of Rs 3.60 per unit, NEA could make money off the rural networks.

But for that to happen, we come back to the same issue: the government first has to keep its promise of paying out the 80 percent matching fund.

Electrifying Humla

If there is one district in Nepal that can be said to be literally and figuratively in the dark, then it is Humla. Neglected for decades, this northwestern-most district has always been a backwater.

Most Humlis use pine leaves for lighting, since even kerosene is too rare and precious. The child mortality rate in Humla is up to three times the national average and this is because of respiratory ailments in infants caused by indoor firewood smoke.

Now, the Humlis are getting together to start a unique program to bring the light of development to their homes through a project for solar-powered electricity kit for mountain homes.

"If we can at least get lights into the home, the children can study, and don't have to destroy their eyes or get sick, and their mothers can do household chores more comfortably," says Jiwan Shahi, the DDC chairman of Humla who is trying to get the solar electricity project started. An elected official, Shahi was recently reappointed to the district council and has bigger projects like linking Simikot to the Tibetan border and a scheme to improve irrigation and agriculture in his district.

Each home will have a lighting kit with an 18-watt solar panel on the roof that will charge a 12-volt battery to light homes at night. The manufacturer, Laser Sun, has subsidised the Rs 10,000 cost of the equipment to Rs 4,000. However, even that is beyond the reach of Humlis.

"It costs only $58 to electrify each home, this is why we are appealing to individual and institutional donors to set aside some money to bring a ray of hope to our people," says Shahi, who says each recipient family has pledged to do Rs 1,000 worth of community service in the district for getting the light system.

Laser Sun's offer is timebound and expires in two months.

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(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)