CONFRONTED with the prohibitive cost of linking remote hill villages to state power grids, the government is pushing small hydro electric schemes as an alternative solution to meet their power needs. So convinced are government experts of the usefulness of these schemes, they have included a total investment of more than Rs 150 crore in the Eighth Plan for the construction of small hydel plants.
Unfortunately, the hill villagers are not impressed. They complain the power generated by small hydel plants does not meet their cooking or heating needs nor does it light their homes all year because there is not enough electricity to go around. These plants, they add, were designed without considering local water availability and so the power supply drops sharply in the summer. The villagers concede each plant employs three or four local youth, but they say the power generated is only sufficient to provide rudimentary domestic lighting. This is because plant output is determined by the limited availability in hill streams.
Small hydro-electric power plants tap minor rivers, streams or canal falls and have the advantage of cutting down transmission and distribution losses that are usually incurred in rural electrification. Micro hydel schemes are also helpful in hill regions because they can prevent deforestation in ecologically fragile areas if they provide enough energy to meet cooking, heating and similar needs.
In fact, a Global Environment Facility (GEF) condition for awarding about $7.5 million (Rs 21 crore) to the ministry of nonconventional energy sources (MNES) to develop small, mini and micro hydel projects in hill areas, is that deforestation must be reduced and because generating hydel power is not dependent on coal, carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions must decline (See box).
Tapping hydro power has been a long standing practice in the hill regions. In fact, Himalayan towns and resorts such as Shimla, Nainital, Mussoorie and Darjeeling owe their existence to hydro power, which was the primary -- and often only -- electricity source in these towns till the 1950s.
"Small hydro plants", explains R S Tolia, secretary of the Uttaranchal Vikas Vibagh, Uttar Pradesh's hill development division, "are a unique kind of socio-economic intervention that can bring about a developmental change in this region."
Since the Non-conventional Energy Development Agency (NEDA) was incorporated in 1985, its former director Shailesh Krishna says about 10 micro hydel schemes have been commissioned and they supply electricity to more than 67 villages with about 12,000 population.
NEDA officials rate the 100-kw micro hydel plants at Ramgarh in Nainital district and Khet in Pithoragarh district, as the best operated and managed by the beneficiary community. G V Gupta, a NEDA assistant projects officer in Pithoragarh, maintains, "Had NEDA placed its own staff to run the plant, the running cost would have increased, the quality of service would have deteriorated and there would have been many complaints and problems."
The four locally employed operators at the Ramgarh plant are paid from electricity charges paid by the villagers. The tariff per connection is Rs 20 and each household pays a one-time charge of Rs 150 for wiring and fittings necessary for two power points. Each household is entitled to draw 150 watts of electricity.
However, revenue realisation is far from satisfactory and Vinod Kumar Pande, an operator at the Ramgarh plant, explains why: "People don't pay up regularly because they think it is the duty of the government to supply free electricity. Or, they complain that their neighbour has installed more points than entitled and so they shouldn't have to pay the same amount."
Even so, says NEDA project officer Shri Sanjay in Nainital: "In Ramgarh, though everyone does not pay promptly, the collection exceeds the remuneration paid to the operators and the costs incurred in routine maintenance and minor repairs. The local cooperative society (samiti) has a surplus of about Rs 20,000 in its bank account."
Despite the examples of Ramgarh and Khet, most hill people are sceptical about managing a hydel plant on their own. Fearing major mechanical problems and having to bear the cost of breakdowns, they want NEDA to continue its role.
Goel agrees some of these fears are justified and says, "The revenue collected is too low and does not generate a surplus that could pay to repair breakdowns. Moreover, the youth employed to operate the plant do not possess the required technical skills to deal with major faults. But NEDA will arrange for funds and technical expertise needed for major repairs."
Another handicap in proper operation of the power plants is that the tariff cannot be increased. Goel explains why: "NEDA cannot charge a higher tariff than the UP state electricity board (UPSEB), whose charges are fixed but highly subsidised."
Though power to the people seems to be the motto of UP's energy planners, they are handicapped because village-level institutions have not been established to manage the plants. Nevertheless, one of them contends, "If the objective is primarily to supply electricity to villages because a grid connection is both costly and inefficient, then we can say we have succeeded."
Villagers in Kapulta and Bargal, who get power from the Ramgarh plant, agree this supply is more efficient than UPSEB electricity. Says Badhri Singh of Bargal, recalling the days when his village was connected to the UPSEB grid, "When the state supplied the power, the bulbs would burn merely as dim red coils, but now the light is bright enough for us to work in." Fellow-villager Prem Singh was equally laudatory: "Now we can work in the fields all day plucking tomatoes and other vegetables, and then sort and pack them at night so they can be taken to the market early next morning."
But villagers in Jahat and Budlakot are less enthusiastic because they have been experiencing power cuts. Dev Singh Vora of Budlakot complains, "We, too, paid Rs 150 each for a power connection to our houses, but we have gone without power for the last two months at a time in the year when we need it most."
The problem of power cuts does trouble the villagers for when NEDA wanted to extend power lines from the Khet plant to the hamlets of Garguan and Somp, the villagers there refused to sign up because, as one of them explained, "We see how difficult it is for the neighbouring villages to get uninterrupted power supply with sufficient voltage. Why would we want to take such a connection?"
But NEDA assistant engineer V K Katiyal, who is responsible for the Khet plant, was quick to point out that his office is not authorised to make decisions on which villages should be connected to the plant. "These are political decisions," he adds, "and they are taken by higher authorities in Lucknow."
Goel, explaining that a 100-kw plant should easily be able to meet the requirements of about 10 hamlets, each with upto 80 households, points out, "Plants do not work at peak efficiency during the summer months, because little water is available."
NEDA does not seem to have visualised these factors when designing micro hydel plants in the hills. Devdatta Das of the University of Roorkee says his study of the performance of these plants indicates they "rarely operate above an average of 30 per cent load factor" though 70 per cent is considered the norm.
The villagers' disenchantment because the supply meets only their lighting needs -- and that too intermittently -- and not their cooking and heating needs, is conceded by scientist K G Saxena of G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development in Almora district. He says, "The government has not given much thought to the end-user's needs in planning these projects. They have just looked at it from the point of view of merely supplying power, with no thought as to why."
And, because there is no electricity for cooking and heating, Rattan Singh of Khet says, "We still depend on the lops and tops of trees in the nearby forests."
Goel explains villagers are permitted to use heaters and coils during daylight hours, when the load demand is low. But, there is little cooperation and most villagers try to cook or heat at the same time, "thereby blowing the fuse or the line or causing the plant to trip."
The hydel experience has prompted many experts to discount supplying electricity to villages as an appropriate solution to the fuel crisis in the rural areas. Roorkee University's Das notes, "Electricity is a high-quality energy and encouraging its use for cooking and heating is a shortsighted policy. It would be far better to utilise half the investment in electricity in afforesting catchment areas and establishing fuelwood plantations. Only then will we make a dent in the energy crisis."
Most villagers even object to proposals for staggering power to different villages on a day-to-day basis. They would prefer, they say, to do without power for a whole month and then be supplied continuously for a month -- a rotation system in effect now in the summer. But in Khet, where water is especially scarce in the summer, plant operator Nayan Singh points out a problem: "We cannot cut off power to entire villages like that. We can only reduce supply from three-phase to two-phase or a single-phase. People may complain, but at least this is better for them than not having any power at all."
Experts in the Kumaon region maintain the engineers have got it all wrong as far as hydro energy resource planning is concerned and geographer J S Rawat of Kumaon University in Almora explains why: "There is abundant hydrological evidence to indicate that the water resources of Kumaon are diminishing." Geologist K S Valdiya adds, "There has not been a clear assessment or survey of the water resources and availability of water. So, the real potential of the region has never been established."
And, even worse, complains Khet villager Bhajan Singh Kunwar, "No one ever consulted us when they designed the plant to find out our requirements, whether the streams are perennial and how the water flow varies year to year."
A widespread complaint of the villagers is the voltage fluctuation. Says Ratan Singh of Khet, "There is too much current and so bulbs glow brightly and burn out. Why can't NEDA supply good bulbs at reduced cost? We spend more money on replacing bulbs than we do on electricity bills."
Khet plant operator Nayan Singh admits it is difficult to keep the voltage constant. "Often," he explains, "this is because the load is too low, but it is also because people meddle with their connections and alter circuits. Moreover, these are remote areas and the bulbs we get here are often imitations of established brands and they do not last long."
Despite these complaints, the availability of electricity has helped villagers who are involved in farming and weaving. In Ramgarh, known for its tomatoes, capsicum, cauliflower and cabbage, work in the field would end at sunset, but now the villagers can work in the field all day and then work at night under electric lights on sorting and packaging the produce so that it can be sold in the market the next day when the produce is still fresh and can fetch a better price.
Electricity has also meant a spurt in education and in socio-cultural activities in the hill villages. Teacher Mohan Singh says the primary school in Khet has about 60 children enrolled. "Now, I can expect them to spend more time in reading and writing as many of their homes have got power." Some of the more enterprising villagers have even acquired television sets.
Despite NEDA's performance and plans, the experiences in the hill villages suggest that NEDA still has a long way before it can substantiate its claim that a one-time investment in micro hydel schemes can economically provide electricity to far-flung rural areas, fulfil their lighting, heating, cooking, irrigation and drinking water needs and open up new opportunities for local employment by establishing small scale and cottage industries.
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