A year ago, if you had told the pujari at Muktinath that by Dasain he would be doing his evening prayers by electric light, he would have responded, sure, and the moon is made of khuwa-baraf. But by Dasain, a light bulb did adorn the eaves of the temple, one of the last major pilgrimage spots in the Himalaya to be so lit.
It all began with an election promise made by District Panchayat Chairman Bishnu Raj Hirachand, the most avid “technophile” in the valley of the Kali Gandaki. He promised to harness the energy of the water descending from the 108 water spouts around the temple to generate electricity. The villagers of Purang and Rani Pauwa, which adjoin Muktinath, were skeptical. Decades ago, they had heard similar promises. Surveys had been carried out and the streams gauged, but when electricity arrived, it was in the district headquarters of Jomosom.
In spring 1988, Hirachand got in touch with Development Consulting Services (DCS), a Butwal-based group that has been installing small power plants in villages across Western Nepal. DCS sent a team to Muktinath, and found that the site was good for a modest unit. The water from the 108 spouts collects in a natural pond and then drops 60 m vertically to an irrigation canal. Up to 9 KW of power could be produced, enough to provide lighting to about 60 houses as well as low wattage cooking (see March 1987 Himal) for about 20 houses. Kerosene would be saved and, yes, video hookups would be possible. What the villagers looked forward to most was that expensive batteries would no longer be required for their radios and cassette players.
The DCS experts estimated that the power plant would cost NRs 4.5 lakhs, including 3.75 lakhs for the equipment. With the cost at more than NRs 5000 per household, financing might take years to get, or so they thought. To their surprise, the villagers were able to collect much of the money from among themselves within days. They demanded that the plant be operational before the monsoon. Taken aback, DCS promised “before Dasain”.
The turbine was manufactured, conductors and a generator purchased, and four planeloads of equipment airlifted to Jomosom in late summer. The villagers contributed the required hard labour and construction began on 1 September. Electricity began to flow on 12 October, a week before Dasain.
Curious pilgrims to Muktinath constantly wanted to know if this was hamrai sarkarko yojana ho ki hideshi sarkar ko (“ls this our government’s project or is it another government’s?”). To which the villagers proudly replied: “Neither, this is our own power.” The speed of construction was disconcerting to some. The landlady of the North Pole Hotel, fast by the temple, wondered aloud if anything built this quickly could last very long. Bikas
Pandcy, DCS’s MIT-trained engineer, reassured her that it would last a long time indeed, “because it was built with the villagers’ own money and with their own sweat.”