9-15 December 2016 #836

Power Struggle

If it was any other product, load-shedding of electricity would have been called what it is: black-marketing. 

Bikram Rai
Speak to anyone in Kathmandu these days, and the subject invariably turns to the unexpected windfall of having electricity 24 hours a day. And in every conversation it is Kulman Ghising whose name comes up, he is spoken about with a combination of awe and admiration. A person few had heard of till about a month ago is now a national hero.

Ghising has done something no one had thought possible: banished load-shedding from the capital. For the first time in a long time, we have seen a government that has actually solved a problem faced by the public. 

Constant power supply is a given in most countries, but you can be pretty sure that people who get rationed electricity only 8 hours a day live in a failed state. Yet, Nepalis are so inured to shortages and shoddy services they stopped complaining about the lack of electricity long ago. We have come to expect so little from our governments that load shedding was taken as a given.

Within months of being appointed to the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) in September, Ghising proved we had no power because the powerful grabbed most of it. All he did was shuffle things around, manage demand and supply, stop 24-hour power supply that some influential industries and individuals were being provided in return for kickbacks, and voila, there was enough for everyone. 

He also streamlined transmission, and changed the chief at the Siuchatar Load Dispatch Centre where the decision about who got power and who didn’t was made. As our investigation on page 14-15 of this edition shows, people up and down the line were profiting by perpetuating the shortage. If it was any other product, load-shedding of electricity would be called black-marketing. 

The rot was so deep we doubt if this would have been possible for so long without the collusion of everyone up and down the line: from past Ministers of Energy or Water Resources to successive NEA bosses since 2006, and even the controllers in Siuchatar.

To be sure, Ghising was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. He benefited from a fortuitous confluence of circumstances. More than 70MW of hydropower has recently been connected to the national grid, and another 75MW will soon be added from private producers. A healthy and late monsoon means rivers are still flowing above normal, and this has maintained maximum generation levels from run-of-river schemes. Power imports from India through the upgraded 400kVA Dhalkebar connector is at a steady 80MW after political and technical hurdles were overcome. Luckily for Ghising, supply is at an all-time high just as demand has fallen steadily because of household and office photovoltaics. 

All Ghising did since taking over at NEA is to manage distribution by cutting a few hours of peak hour power to various large consumers and spreading that to households across the country. A couple of ministers and NEA chiefs who tried to do the same thing previously were sacked. The machinery of load-shedding was so well-oiled everyone got their share of payoffs from the big boys, and integrity was not tolerated.

The NEA is now saying that it can obviate power rationing in Kathmandu Valley at least till February. After that power cuts could return because the gap between supply and demand is just too big. But it will be nowhere near what we suffered last year this time.

Kulman Ghising is fortunate to have political backing from Energy Minister Janardan Sharma and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal who seem to have decided that ensuring 24-hour power is the most effective thing they can do to restore the Maoist party’s credibility. It is also a stroke of luck that Energy Secretary Anup Upadhyay is not just any old bureaucrat shunted in from another ministry, but an electrical engineer himself.

Ghising’s next challenge is to unbundle the NEA into three separate companies for generation, transmission and distribution — a proposal that has been around for 20 years but kept getting shelved because the combined utility was too much of a cash cow for greedy politicians.

A much bigger danger is that political pressure from those who have benefited from load-shedding over the past decades will be too much for Ghising to bear. He is already feeling the heat from NEA unions affiliated to the three main parties, who had been siphoning off load-shedding kickbacks. Some NEA Board members were found to have faked board minutes to undermine Ghising and have been hauled over the coals.

Kulman Ghising would be well-advised to cover his back, and the public should show its appreciation for a man who proved to all of us that some people still value personal integrity and the national interest. 

Read also

Speaking truth to power, Shreejana Shrestha

Switched on, Om Astha Rai

Mustering up energy to face the future, Om Astha Rai

NEA crippled, Lokmani Rai

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