Monday, December 20, 2010

Fight power outage

Recently, one of my friend’s younger brothers told me that he is working on finding an employment in Dubai through a manpower agent. I initially laughed it off as a joke as I thought the guy who was doing pretty well for himself running a computer training institute would not leave the country to do some odd job in the Gulf.

Besides, he was supposed to get married in a couple of days. But, as we chatted along, it became quite clear that he was quite serious about his decision to leave the country. I could not understand why someone who had decided to stay put while most of us left the hometown long ago wanted to leave all of a sudden.

Well, crippling power supply may be a mere inconvenience for well-to-do in Kathmandu and elsewhere in the country for which many have found solution in inverter and generator but for people like my friend’s brother, it is having a devastating impact on livelihood.

Many politicians, pundits, and bureaucrats have done well for themselves selling the dreams of changing the fate of the nation through hydro dollars. Does promise of transforming Nepal into Switzerland ring a bell? It’s been 20 years since we adopted free-market economy, and in all these years, what dream merchants have done is push the nation further into perpetual darkness. Isn’t 20 years a good time for us to see some positive results? Forget about benefiting from water resources financially, shouldn’t we be at least self-sufficient to meet our own energy needs by now?

The chances of benefiting from selling energy appear bleak. India, which is the primary and the biggest market for Nepal’s energy has already started building nuclear power plants. During the recent visit to India, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has agreed to build two European pressurized reactors of 1,650 megawatts each worth $9.3 billion. It appears that by the time we will be actually able to break the close nexus between hydro-mafia, politicians, and bureaucrats, which does not appear like it will happen anytime soon given the dysfunctional state of the country, and unleash our hydropower potential, India will be nuclear-powered. Even if it needed energy, it will be in a better position to bargain for cheaper price. By then, the so-called jingoists that are now opposing hydropower contracts to Indian companies will have been long gone. But by letting these jingoists have their way, we will have compromised the prospects of future generations benefiting from the economic gains made now through hydropower generation and energy sales.

While the hydro-mafia, politicians in power, bureaucrats, and jingoists stall the progress of the hydropower sector’s development in the country, lack of electricity, which could have been subsidized for poor from the energy sales to the neighboring countries, has hurt lower middle class and poor the most. If we look at the consequences of the energy poverty at the public level, it becomes evident that the lack of electricity is a main problem for poor health and educational outcomes. One of the main problems caused by energy poverty is indoor pollution.

Hundreds of thousands of girls and women of these households that are responsible for cooking suffer from respiratory problems that are caused by an inefficient biomass system used for cooking. Girls and women of a nation, which is only next to Brazil in water resources, certainly deserve a better deal. If these households have the access to subsidized energy, girls and women can use the time they save from collecting biomass fuel used for cooking for studies. The existing gender disparity in educational outcomes would bridge over time. Without a reliable access to electricity, health centers are often forced to treat patients in the dark and to rely on biomass and fuel generator to keep vaccines and medicines usable. For the rich, lack of regular supply of electricity might be a nuisance, but for the poor, to whom remaining healthy and getting decent education is the only way out of poverty, it is one of the major barriers.

In a country, where the government is unable to create jobs for its growing population, lack of secure energy access is limiting the opportunities of growth of the private sector and increasing their costs. For radicals that want to turn the nation into a welfare state, bleeding of the private sector is good news. As the private sector – the only hope for creating jobs for a growing population – fails, there will be more hotheads to recruit. Deep down, radicals and “ethnic-entrepreneurs” do not want the private sector to flourish because they very well know that robust private sector is an engine of growth.

Take India as an example where free market and strong private sector is changing the lives of Dalits, who happen to be at the rock bottom of the pyramid. A study led by Devesh Kapur at Pennsylvania University´s Centre for the Advanced Study of India, which quizzed Dalit households – more than 19,000 – in two clusters of villages in Azamgarh and Bulandshahar, two poor, backward districts in Uttar Pradesh state, clearly show that free market and strong private sector is benefiting Dalits. When asked to compare their material and social conditions now and in 1990 when economic reforms just started in India, Dalits have overwhelmingly reported substantial gain in material status as well as changes in a wide variety of social practices affecting Dalit well-being. Access to capital assets was found to have increased, consumption had become better, and relationship between the Dalits and other castes is undergoing subtle, but substantial changes.

In our case, why would the jingoists and ethnic entrepreneurs that are benefiting politically from the backwardness of Dalits and other ethnic groups care about the hemorrhaging in the private sector? While the jingoists and ethnic-entrepreneurs do not have interest in promoting the sector, the ones that credit themselves of introducing free-market economy in the country have personal interests that they think needs to be fulfilled along with the development of the sector. They are yet to realize what one-and-half decade of chasing personal gains has done to the party’s standing and their personal image. May be, they don’t care about it, as most of their siblings are settled abroad and do not intend to intend to join politics like the children of Indian politicians do. So, why invest in political capital building? Makes perfect sense!

One of the reasons why a selected few have been able to squander Nepal’s hydropower potential is because we let them. Power outage is forced upon citizens of one of the earth’s most water resources-rich nation because we as a nation accept it. People tend to accept unfavorable conditions more readily and this is precisely what greedy opportunists need in order to line their own pockets with the wealth that is supposed to benefit the people. We remain cheated because we are not protective of our fundamental human rights and realize that we deserve the best that life can offer.

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