Opinion | History lessons for energy sector

Bishal Thapa

Bishal Thapa

Opinion | History lessons for energy sector

Through its policies and program, the government is shrugging off the movement that is building around distributed renewable energy

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Maoists submitting their 40-point demand, a milestone widely regarded as the start of the Maoist armed uprising in Nepal. In the years that followed, 17,000 Nepalis lost their lives, thousands more were displaced, the economy was shattered, monarchy abolished, and a new federal republic of Nepal took shape.

We look back to that discarded moment of history–the submission of the 40-point demand–to ask if the bloodshed, violence, and turmoil that followed could have been avoided. Does it hold a lesson for us?

On 4 February 1996, Baburam Bhattarai and Pampha Bhusal arrived at Singha Durbar to submit their 40-point demand but were denied entry. In protest, Bhusal sprawled out on the road, blocking traffic. In the few minutes of commotion that ensued, a minister’s convoy was held up.

So much of history turns on an instant.

The minister happened to recognize Bhattarai. He called the Prime Minister’s office. Sher Bahadur Deuba was the PM then.

The two were ushered in. They got to meet Deuba briefly, and present the Maoist demands, which included a threat to start an armed uprising within two weeks if the demands were not met.

Deuba was occupied that day as he was preparing for a state visit to India. He shrugged off the meeting, and later that week, left for India. Less than two weeks later, the Maoists attacked the police post at Holeri, Rolpa. The armed Maoist uprising had begun.       

History has come full circle.

Today, Deuba is Prime Minister again. He is busy preparing for a visit to Glasgow, United Kingdom to attend the UN Climate Change Conference.

Also read: Unfree minds

Pampha Bhusal sits across the table from him as part of his cabinet, as the Minister of Energy, Water Resources, and Irrigation.

As Bhusal sprawled out before the gates of Singha Durbar 25 years ago demanding to meet Deuba, did anyone have the foresight to imagine them huddled together in a cabinet meeting?

Had Deuba been provided a glimpse of the future when he was rushing through the meeting 25 years ago, would he have listened more carefully? Could history have been altered, the bloodshed of the armed uprising avoided?

If Bhusal and the Maoists had similarly been provided a glimpse of the future and were able to see that their demands—the abolition of monarchy, secularism, federal republic—were a lot closer within reach, would they have chosen a less violent path that avoided the bloodshed of the armed uprising?

The lesson for us from this incident should be that change doesn’t need to be all turmoil. Everything doesn’t need to be destroyed. Change can also be managed. For that, we need to find the courage to recognize and appreciate the underlying forces that are shaping change.

Nepal’s energy sector must draw from the lesson and listen more carefully to the underlying forces shaping it.

The sector is in crisis. The government’s narrative of excess electricity production has suddenly made Nepal’s hydropower potential seem irrelevant. At the same time, 80 percent of the country’s energy use still relies on traditional biomass fuels. Energy accounts for the largest share of imports.

Also read: Systemic dysfunction 

The government’s response to this crisis has been to centralize authority and decision-making. It is working actively to centralize the design of Nepal’s energy system and make it structurally more reliant on government’s authority.

The forces sweeping the electricity sector are tugging in the opposite direction. Distributed renewable energy technologies are eroding the authority of electric monopolies and enabling customers to be both users and producers of electricity. Digital technologies are reshaping how consumers and distributed technologies interact with one other, conduct business, and optimize production and use. Distributed renewable energy technologies are empowering customers to do more in a cleaner and sustainable manner than centralized systems have ever been able to do.

In 1996, Prime Minister Deuba shrugged off Bhattarai, Bhusal and the Maoists. Today, through its policies and program, the government is shrugging off the movement that is building around distributed renewable energy.

For Bhusal, the energy minister, who 25 years ago lay on the road in front of the gates of Singha Durbar demanding decentralization, it is an ironic twist of history that she is now creating policies that are centralizing our energy destiny in the hands of a few. 

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