Affordably doing without Wapda

K-P must act before the area plunges into darkness again, shattering its touristic dreams


Dr Pervez Tahir October 22, 2021
The writer is a senior political economist

The latest hike in electricity tariff has taken it up the hill to Rs16.44 per unit. But some in the hills have enjoyed an average tariff as low as Rs8 per unit, with no add-ons. The revelation came during a visit this week to the hill resort Kalam. Not only the tariff is low, it has stayed the same while several hikes since 2018 have cumulated to a rise of over 40% for the rest of the country. This huge advantage is the result of Wapda’s absence in the valley. The fascinating story goes like this. After the earthquake of 1974, two projects of 600 kw were completed by Sarhad Hydro Development Organisation as post-disaster relief. Blaming the poor for not paying their bills rather than owning its own distaste for managing small projects, Wapda closed down the projects. In 2008, they were leased to a private party that gave up within two months. Whatever remained of the infrastructure was damaged by the floods in 2010. As if this darkness was not enough, the valley was taken over by militants. In 2013, the European Union (EU) stepped in with the Programme for Economic Advancement and Community Empowerment (PEACE) to alleviate the suffering of the people of Malakand. The Alternative Energy Development Board had been sitting over an EU grant of 23 million euros for 3-4 years. The EU diverted this amount with a topping of 17 million to PEACE and tasked a nongovernment entity, Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), to execute the project.

Rural electrification was the top priority, claiming 60% of the grant. The PTI government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa agreed to hand over the redundant power units to SRSP for restoration and augmentation. It was perhaps the first ever case of transferring public assets to nongovernment sector. A start was made with the redundant units in Kalam. Within six months, one unit was upgraded to double its capacity. In the next two years, Ashuran hydro project was also upgraded to three times the existing capacity to 1.2 MW. There was no model to follow, nor capacity available, for affordable run of the river micro hydel projects. Based on its comparative advantage, the SRSP developed a community-based flexible, adaptive and responsive model for operation, maintenance and management. Tariff was agreed with community, and the management of various activities was located in Kalam. The people whom Wapda blamed for default were now paying their bills. This reflects consumer satisfaction. Interestingly, while the poor and commercial customers pay, the government departments and agencies show reluctance. Instead of supporting the efforts of the nongovernment organisation, the officialdom creates obstacles.

Kalam is not the end of story. The model has been successfully extended to Shangla, Upper Dir and Chitral, with a total installed capacity of 7.86 MW. Another model, managed by community, has given access to electricity through 343 micro hydel power projects with a fixed monthly bill of Rs100-500. These aggregate to 22 MW. Within a decade, a not-for-profit, nongovernment organisation has provided access to electricity, a basic right, by installing a capacity of 29 MW for a poor, remote and marginalised population of one million. The K-P government is now incentivising tourism by building roads. In Kalam, massive hotel construction is happening. Soon the resort will face a demand for electricity beyond the capacity created by the SRSP. Pakhtunkhwa Energy Development Organisation has chosen to focus on mega projects. Wapda is unlikely to return to these off-grid locations. The province must act before the area plunges into darkness again, shattering its touristic dreams.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2021.

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