You could say it began over a cup of coffee. A January afternoon about five years ago, journalist Bhairab Risal was meeting Jeevan Bahadur Shahi, a former chairman of Humla District Development Committee over coffee, and during the conversation, Shahi told Risal, “Dai, if we can collect Rs. 4,000, we can provide solar electricity to a family in Humla.”
For Risal, it was a chance to do something for a district he had first visited 38 years ago, in 1972, after a five-day trek from Jumla. Humla is still as remote as it was back then; Karnali, the zone that the district is in, was only recently connected by a highway.
someone born in relatively-urban Bhaktapur. “Houses without roofs and people in ragged clothing would astonish any first timer in the area,” he recounts, “Women would not be heard speaking. It was a whole new experience for me.” Risal, who worked for the Rastriya Samachar Samiti then.
Risal was fascinated with the district then, and after his conversation with Shahi, he realised there was something he could do for the district that was still reeling under darkness.
Then at a wedding reception after the conversation, Risal spoke to energy expert Ratna Sansar Shrestha. “What do you think about contributing Rs. 4,000 to provide electricity to a family in Humla?” After listening to Risal, Shrestha agreed. Risal went to the then secretary at the Ministry of Local Development Khem Raj Nepal, who was equally positive. Risal extracted a promise that Nepal would include Humla in a pilot project for solar electricity if there was an official request from the district.
Finally, the project took a more coherent shape. The plan was to provide solar electricity to 50 households in 2004, 500 households in 2005, and an additional 5,000 households the following year. A month ago, 150 more households were provided solar lights.
The first families to benefit from the project were from Saubada village near Simikot, the district headquarters. From the 85 households there, the campaign was expanded to Sri Nagar, Bargaon, Chhipra, Muchu, Langduk and Sarkideu villages. Now, residents of these villages don’t have to walk for hours looking for pinecones—their earlier source of fuel. Kerosene usage has gone down drastically, which is quite a relief as a litre of the fuel here costs Rs. 150. Villagers here also say the use of solar power has improved their health. They don’t have to use soot-emitting kerosene and pinecone lamps.
Thus, while Simikot reels under darkness at times, Darma village—a four-day walk from Simikot—is brightly lit up due to solar power. Television sets have begun making their appearances, and cable channels are clearer than in Kathmandu. All because of Risal’s initiative over a cup of coffee.
But Shahi’s work at the grassroots was equally important to this makeover of Humla. For, Shahi, and another local activist Jaya Bahadur Rokaya, insisted that before a family receives a solar connection, they had to build toilets. The District Committee agreed to provide 15 kg of cement, PVC pipes, and toilet cubicles to each household. This initiative emphasized upon sanitation as being imperative to further development.
Shahi was someone who grew up in Humla, yet was always disturbed by the poverty levels in the district. Now 43 years old, he says the extreme backwardness always made him feel sorry. “‘Something had to be done,’ I would think to myself,” he says. There were no schools in any village except Simikot, the district headquarters. People would walk for 12 days to get to Sanphebagar, in Achham distict, to buy basic commodities like salt, rice, and oil. And if one needed a photocopy of their documents, one had to go all the way to Nepalgunj—spending Rs. 6,000 just for a single photocopy. His priorities when he became the District Committee chairman were on three issues: roads, electricity, and a market-place.
Unfortunately, the only thing he succeeded with was electricity. There are still no roads in Humla, and people still have to walk to far-away places to get basic necessities.
Despite the hitches, at least 6,000 households today have electricity in some form. And this has been because of the collective efforts of Risal and Shahi. Risal says Rs. 1 million has already been spent on the project—the funds have come from individual donations, charity musical concerts, and NGOs. “Raising funds is much easier than getting things done on the ground,” Risal says. Which is true: the equipment has to be transported by helicopters. Houses have to be photographed and house-owners need to produce photocopies of their citizenships for records.
The Rs. 4,000 that Shahi was initially talking about goes into purchasing a solar panel, two six-watt bulbs and a rechargeable battery. The government subsidy towards rural solar power is utilised for transportation. Each household is required to pay Rs. 1,000 for the installation.
Shahi and Risal’s small-talk over coffee has led to the government being inspired to set up its own campaign—Light to Karnali—under which the Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, a government body, which will distribute 60,000 solar lamps in the remote districts of the Mid-Western region.
From coffee to lighting up a region—it’s been a long, and arduous, journey for Risal and Shahi.