Pinthali after 17 years: A micro hydro project that charged up a Tamang village
There was one reason why neighbouring villagers wanted to visit Pinthali, that too at night. They would flock to the surrounding hills to catch a glimpse of the village in Kavre district on the outskirts of Kathmandu because it outshone other settlements, literally.
“People from the surrounding villages wanted to see what electricity looked like,” says Surya Lal Tamang, a resident of Pinthali, Roshi Rural Municipality-9, who was in his teens when the Tamang village turned on its first TV set. “After the electrification, one of the villagers brought a black and white TV. One couldn’t count the number of shoes and slippers outside his house! People were hooked to the TV.”
The year was 2001. The village became one of the first in the district to turn on its electric bulbs, thanks to a micro-hydro project designed and built by the Rural Energy Development Programme (REDP), set up in August 1996 with the twin goals of improving rural livelihoods and preserving the environment through the promotion of rural energy systems, and then District Development Committee.
REDP’s aim was to make it possible for people in villages, where grid electricity was not accessible, to not just use power to light bulbs, but also to use it to develop productive end-uses that generate income. But the most direct impact of the project that the people felt was that they were engaged in a lot less drudgery.
“There was a time when my mother was really ill. Looking after her at night was difficult as we had to rely on kerosene lamps,” remembers Gyan Bahadur Lama and his wife Lal Maya Tamang, residents of the village famous for its garlic. “We’d walk for an entire day to sell our garlic at the nearest market. We’d get Rs 10-15 per dharni (2.5 kg) and use the money to buy kerosene and salt,”remembers Surya Lal. “When there was a shortage of kerosene in the market, the village would be completely dark,” he says.
The villagers discouraged children to do their homework at night as kerosene lamps could not be given to them because of the risk of fire, particularly in traditional houses with thatched roofs, home to the poorest members of the community.
The Buddhist village, nestled on a hill, made its living bartering garlic with other products for a long time. The village elders knew that if water from the Daunne spring on the hill could be utilised well, garlic production could be increased. “So in 1960, three village elders spent their saving on building an irrigation canal,” remembers Surya Lal, a proud son of one of the three men. As production of garlic increased, villagers began venturing into bigger markers around Kathmandu, where lighting homes with electricity at night was something people did not worry about. The villagers realised that they also needed electricity. However, it was not possible to get grid electricity to the village because of its difficult terrain.
According to a 2002 report by DFID, the villagers spent many years actively lobbying for help to get electricity. Finally, in 1980, staff from the Agricultural Development Bank came to the village to conduct a feasibility study. Little did the villagers know that the canal their fathers built could me upgraded to a micro-hydro power plant.
It took more than 20 years for the project to finally take off. “One of the villagers was elected to the District Development Committee and that helped a lot,” says Surya Lal.
In the 20 years, the Kavre DDC created the Rural Energy Development Section, which carried out site visits and pre-feasibility studies. A Technical Review Committee was set up at the central level to assess the financial and technical aspects of priority projects. At the village level, REDP supported the formation of the Micro-hydro Functional Group, which would be responsible for overall management, resource mobilisation and implementation of the project.
Money for the project came from the group, the District Development Committee, the Village Development Committee, REDP, government subsidy, and a loan from the Agricultural Development Bank of Nepal (ADBN). The community contributed mainly in the form of labour.
The total cost was Rs 1.48 million (Rs 123,460/kw). “REDP helped us form 11 teams that contributed labour for the project,” says Lal Maya Tamang, the chair of the local women’s group. With the powerhouse built, turbine installed, canals upgraded and power lines laid, the village finally was illuminated even on new moon nights.
While the sandals and shoes outside the ‘TV house’ was the most visible sign that the village now had electricity flowing on the wires strung on wooden poles, a more subtle sign manifested itself on the fields and at the village school. With the upgradation of the canals, the villagers could irrigate more land and produce more garlic. Children, who would not complete their homework, were completing their assignments. But that was not it. Women past their school-going age started going to school, at night.
“We didn’t know how to read and write,” says Lal Maya, who now runs a hotel and eatery with her husband. “We could not even do simple addition and subtraction,” she remembers. “We wanted to learn to do that, but we did not have time. We were busy with household chores during the day, and at night it was too dark to read or write,” she shares.
But all that changed when reading and writing became possible at night, thanks to the micro-hydro project. Lal Maya and dozens of other women in the village attended an adult literacy programme run by the project. Soon, the women in the village could not only add and subtract, but could also keep track of their accounts.
“In the past we would feel that people could cheat us because we did not do math,” says Chyampa Tamang, another woman who attended the adult literacy classes. “But now we can do our own business,” Chyampa, who now ventures to as far a Kathmandu to sell vegetables as well as woolens. “After attending the literacy classes, we used our spare time at night to knit sweaters and caps. This helped us earn more.”
Change was also visible in the kitchens where electric rice cookers replaced firewood. Women had more free time to engage in enterprise after a rice huller and oil expeller was installed to make use of power generated with the micro-hydro plant.
As women were engaged in enterprise, they found it easier to deal in money rather than continue the barter trading system of their ancestors. “The project also helped us form a cooperative to formalise savings and credit schemes, providing loans at reasonable rates,” explains Surya Lal.
The other noticeable transformation in the village came in the field of governance. According to locals, before the project, a handful of senior men decided on almost all matters related to the village. “But after the project adopted a participatory approach, the women feel confident to talk about things that matter to them,”says Chyampa.
A lot of water has flown in the Daunne stream since the inception of the project 17 years ago. The power plant, which survived through many political changes in the country, doesn’t produce as much electricity as it used to. “During the dry season, there is a considerable reduction in the flow of water,” he says. “Villages living upstream are drawing more water from the stream than before and trees that absorb a lot of water are being planted on the hills,” says Gyan Bahadur Lama, the chairman of the micro-hydro user group. “In the next few years, we expect the water the decline further. That is why we are proposing that water be lifted from the Roshi river that flows near the hill,” he adds.
“But the changes the project brought to the lives of the villagers here are irreversible.”
This story was produced under a fellowship from NEFEJ.
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