People's power

Idukki district in Kerala shows that small hydel power plants can be profitable

Published: Thursday 31 March 2005

People's power

-- Immediately after independence, the state government in Kerala focused on tapping the hydropower potential of the state. The efforts did bear some fruit. The lion's share of Kerala's power requirements is provided by 20 hydel power plants. In recent years, thermal power plants have also been pushed into service. However, Kerala is far from fulfilling its actual energy requirements.

At the same time, the vast hydel power resources of the state remain grossly under-utilised. There is some reason behind this neglect: environmentalists apprehend that use of Kerala's large waterways for power projects might inundate large stretches of forest lands, displace many who live alongside the water bodies and cause irreparable damage to the state's rich marine life. But there is a way out: mini hydel power (mhps) projects do not come with social and environmental costs that inevitably accompany large hydropower programmes. mhps in Kerala's Idukki district offer good examples of the sustainable use of hydel power.

There are 212 mhps in the district, spread over 35 gram panchayats. The units were started either by a group of people or by the local bodies. In a few cases, enterprising individuals also installed the mhps. A survey by the Kottayam, Kerala-based Centre for Rural Management (crm) revealed that a large percentage of these units were set up by people with no technical expertise. This is not surprising; the enterprise uses simple mechanics. Most mhps are powered by dynamos of motor-bikes or auto rickshaws; a number of other locally available components such as bamboo reeds were also used.

The uncomplicated units are highly effective. A majority of them provide power satisfactorily for more than nine months in a year. The installed capacity of a significant number of units is a little more than 200 watts per hour. Though this only provides for the lighting needs for a small family of four, the power is welcome relief for Idukki's residents -- for most units are almost one kilometre from the nearest Kerala State Electricity Board power grid.

Cost effective Most of the units were installed by finance mobilised by individual households or through personal loans. A majority of them cost less than Rs 5,000. Operation and maintenance is usually a family affair. It's also quite cheap: most units don't spend more than Rs 100 per month for repairs.

The crm study noted another significant achievement: the creation of precious social capital. The units have fostered social cohesion and mutual trust among those who run them.
Grassroots initiative

What really is the reason for the success of the mhps? Here is a figure which might offer some clues: 95 per cent of these units were set up after an extensive People's Planning Campaign that began in Kerala in 1996. The campaign identified a number of potential sources of mini/micro hydel power resources in Upputhura (in Idukki district) and Meenvallam (in Palakkad). The proposals were debated at length in gram sabha s, and later in seminars. After the deliberations, comprehensive development reports were prepared by the local administration -- a separate chapter was reserved for the power sector. The State Planning Board reckons that one of the greatest achievements of people's planning in the state was the installation of small hydel power projects by the panchayats with active participation of the beneficiaries. The development reports of various gram panchayats in the Idukki District identified 135 energy sources in the region, out of which 74 are hydel power sources and 61 wind power sources.

Perpetual fear In spite of all their success, the people who run the mhps live in a constant fear of penalties. The Kerala Panchayat Raj Act, 1994 has no place for their initiatives. The Kerala State Electricity Board (kseb) rules also discourage their endeavours. kseb should not forget that it would have taken it years to extend power to off-grid regions such as Idukki. So, the people's initiative of this off-grid region deserves all encouragement. In fact, it should make sure that the simple mechanics of the Idukki mhps is replicated elsewhere in Kerala.

Jos Chathukulam and K.Gireesan are with the Centre for Rural Management, Kottayam, Kerala

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