Transformer Man


An indication of the kleptocracy we live in is that an honest government official who performs well is regarded as a messiah. Doctors who do not gouge patients are raised on to pedestals. The public treats a traffic policeman who enforces lane discipline as a saviour. Perhaps only in Nepal can you be a national hero just for doing your job. 

Kulman Ghising was appointed Managing Director of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) in August 2016 -- a time when the country was suffering up to 18 hours of power cuts daily. Janardan Sharma, the Energy Minister from the Maoist party at the time, picked the right man for the right job at the right time. 

It was rare enough that an electrical engineer should head an electricity company, because Ghising’s predecessors at the NEA had been road contractors. Remember, Energy Minister Radha Gyawali had pulled Ghising out of the Chilime Hydropower Project in 2012 – because he was doing a good job. He had replaced him with a crony.

Within months of being in office, Ghising had brought load-shedding to an end. He just did what any intelligent engineer would do: he systematically went about cutting system loss and increasing supply. 

Ghising reduced leakage from 26% to 15% by cracking down on pilferage and upgrading transmission lines, substations and transformers. He cut off 24-hour dedicated feeds through which his predecessors had been providing businesses low tariff electricity in return for kickbacks.

And he met the remaining shortfall with increased production from private power producers, as well as imports from India. His contacts in the Indian power bureaucracy from college days in Jamshedpur came in handy. 

Nepal’s dark ages of 2006-2016 are a memory now. There used to be public jubilation when NEA announced that power cuts would be reduced from 18 hours to 14 hours a day. The candle industry did brisk business, inverters and solar systems flew off the shelves. Yet, Nepalis were so glad the war was over, they did not have the heart to complain. We expected so little from government that we took load-shedding as a given. 

It was only later that investigative reports in this paper and elsewhere revealed the level of malfeasance and mismanagement that had kept Nepalis in the dark ages. Documents show that through the tenures of managing directors Mukesh Kafle, Arjun Karki and Rameswor Yadav, NEA sold electricity in the black market to major industries, some of which are well known brands and heavy advertisers in the media.

The modus operandi was that selected customers got uninterrupted power supply through dedicated feeds by diverting electricity from household consumers. The NEA told the media there was a demand-supply gap, and blamed the war for delayed power projects.

When Ghising took over at NEA, he cut the dedicated feeds, slapped a tariff increase on industries, and also handed them bills for past arrears. NEA’s losses was Rs9 billion when Ghising was appointed in 2016 but its by the time he left this week, its profit has soared to Rs11.1 billion. 

Reduced domestic demand and production from new private power plants meant that imports from India dropped from a peak of 35% of total demand to 22% this year.  

The captains of industry, former NEA bosses and their political patrons who are behind the current campaign not to renew Ghising’s four-year term which expired on 14 September are the ones who benefited from the rotten system that bled NEA dry and kept Nepalis in darkness for a decade.

As we reported last month, the Energy Ministry had forwarded its endorsement of Ghising’s extension to the Cabinet, but it was not added to the agenda of Monday’s meeting. Prime Minister K P Oli is said to be against Ghising’s renewal, mainly because he feels the government did not get any credit for ending powercuts, and because “Kulman became a hero”. This envy of Ghising’s performance and popularity permeates through the political class.

NCP Chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal is said to support Ghising’s renewal because it would hurt the party’s image in the public eye. Oli’s allies, including his new economic adviser Yubaraj Khatiwada and press secretary, have made disparaging remarks about Ghising, and there has also been a social media campaign to smear him. 

Some senior NCP members also appear to be wary of Ghising’s popularity in case he decides to enter politics. That, actually, may not be such a bad idea. The performance of anyone who succeeds Ghising at NEA will be under close public scrutiny anwyay, and the can-do style of this “Cool Man” may have much more impact as a politician.

Kulman Ghising should not be MD, but MP. Perhaps, even an Energy Minister someday.

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