Power the people

For the country where only 15 per cent of its population have access to electricity, Nepal has come a long way. It took 84 years to achieve power generation of 250 megawatt. And only five years to add a whopping 125 megawatt through microhydels, an increase of 50 per cent. Since 1995, community-based power generation and distribution have ushered in a social revolution. Now Nepal's remotest hills generate their own electricity in their backyard. India, despite its vast hydro potential, chooses to ignore this clean and economically viable option.

Published: Thursday 30 November 2000

Power the people

-- (Credit: Photographs: Amit Shanker / CS)Sahashradhara, Dehradun, India. A soft drink shop greets thousands of tourists at this confluence of a thousand streams. So what's the big deal? Well, its just that the shop is located right inside a microhydel powerhouse that supplied electricity to three nearby villages for over four years. Two year ago, it suddenly stopped functioning. Its lone operator, Rajendra Prasad, has not been paid his salary ever since. He opened the shop for his 'survival'. His official register has the last entry in 1997, when a mechanic from Delhi visited the powerhouse. "Villagers have reverted back to their old kerosene lamps for light and children have again stopped studying at night," says Prasad.

A bad example in a beautiful place.

Piughar, Tanahu, Nepal. It takes a few hours of dangerous trekking at over 900 metres above the sea level to reach this village situated on a hill slope which overlooks the virulent Seti river. The last thing one can expect here is a hydroelectricity project. But local hillfolk teamed up, got a loan, and through voluntary labour used a stream for running a turbine which now generates eight kilowatt (KW) of electricity.

Days now end late in Piughar. There is no longer that eerie silence that descends with dusk. The village is buzzing with life even at 10 at night. "We never imagined life would change so much with electricity," says Dhan Raj Gurung, a resident who has recently taken up off-season vegetable cultivation, irrigated by the tail end water of the powerhouse.

A beautiful example in a difficult place.

The two villages in the Himalayan range of mountains are separated by an international border, but more importantly by two different energy policies. In the Nepalese side, one can build and operate a run-of-the-river micro-hydroelectricity (less than 1,000 kw ) project as easily as a paan shop and can fix the tariff according to the cost. Implemented as a poverty alleviation and agricultural development programme, community-based electrification of rural Nepal has turned into a major civil society movement. "It is the most exciting social transformation," says Dipak Gyawali, a noted policy analyst from Nepal.

On the Indian side, community-based electricity generation remains a distant dream. Though the Union government has opened up electricity generation to the private sector, regulation and inadequate policy incentives restrict the community, particularly in the hills where it is needed the most. 'Community participation' remains limited to few 'demonstration' projects. Says R V G Menon, director, Integrated Rural Technology Centre, Pallakad, Kerala: "The private sector invariably skims the cream and seeks to corner the most economically advantageous projects." This, again, leaves the remote areas without electricity. According to one estimate, about 40,000 villages -- mostly in the Himalayan range -- could not be linked with the national grid, despite their huge potential for generating electricity right in their backyard.

Interestingly, Nepal had to bow before the pressure from its civil society to decentralise its hydroelectricity generation and distribution. Here, the decentralised power policy was a result of the villagers and private entrepreneurs' effort to upgrade the traditional watermills for electricity generation. Acknowledging that the hills cannot be electrified with the resources available, the government delicensed power generation up to 1,000 kw . "That was a big leap forward in Nepal's decentralised energy policy," says Gyawali .

India, on the other hand, has been ignoring mass movement of the hill people for decentralised electric generation and distribution. In the hills of Uttar Pradesh ( up) , some 50,000 such g harat (traditional watermill used for milling and husking purpose in the hills) owners are demanding to upgrade their traditional mills for electricity generation and for a community-based electricity policy. "When your rulers are blind, how can one expect light from them," says 70-year-old Inder Singh, owner of a gharat in Chamoli district, up .

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