Non-electoral Representation in Public Policy: Institutional Capacity of Community Electricity User Groups in Nepal

While the need to access, involve, and empower citizens to the heart of public governance and decision-making for effective and accountable policy formulation and implementation remains a celebrated ideal, its outcomes, in reality, have been unyielding to a large extent. Controlled arenas of public policy deliberation and deficits within traditional electoral representation system have curtailed actual voice and concerns of citizens in public policy, leading to failure in policy adoption and implementation. Increasingly, actors and institutions outside the government have been found identifying themselves with policy functions of the government. Involvement of the third sector in complimentary roles in service provisioning, resource distribution, and infrastructure management has enabled alternative modes of mainstreaming marginalised voices in public policy processes. Changing notion and dynamics of traditional political constituency has resulted in representative claims to surface from within collective non-electoral representative institutional structures. Having common shared agendas and an egalitarian mandate, these institutions are calling for recognition in public policy functions. The growing network of Community Electricity User Groups in Nepal claims to represent a constituency of rural population across Nepal, who have been traditionally alienated by the state in favour of urban populace for electricity access. This paper discusses the institutional capacity of South Lalitpur Rural Electricity Cooperative to represent the voices of local electricity users in public policy formulation. Its objective is to assess the legitimacy of representative claims in rural electrification. Findings show that it is not sufficient to trace policy agendas across various representative levels to conclude on the legitimacy of representation, and the process of building representative agendas is largely affected by institutional decision-making structure, democratic practice in self-renewal and accountability of local leadership
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The legitimacy of state policies is determined by the extent to which they represent, or can successfully claim to represent, some group or larger set of social interests. While electoral representation remains crucial in this regard, the claims of elected representatives that they act on behalf of citizens have been scrutinised and segmented to border contestation by other actors and entities that also make representative claims (Urbinati and Warren, 2008:392). Public policy process, which was once restricted to elected representatives, is now progressively being opened to new actors through initiatives that aim to improve public sector governance. Newer and more complex arrangements cut across boundaries between public and private, state and non-state, thus opening plural and often informal modes of engagement with citizens at local, national, and supranational levels. While new and important questions are being raised about the scope and legitimacy of traditional notions of electoral representation for effective policy making, alternative modes of representation are also being advocated.
Arrangements that link citizens and states in new ways and seek to rebuild relationships between citizens and their governments have empowered non-state actors or civil society organisations (CSOs) in public policy functions. Civil society organisations have aided the ability of citizens to act collectively and autonomously vis-à-vis the government, and, at the same time, assert their claims and demands on public policy. They have been found to be effective in transferring disempowered voices and marginal ideas to the heart of public governance (White 2009). Showcasing promising prospects through distributed knowledge acquisition and decentralised problem solving, CSOs strengthen deliberative democratic norms of governance, whereby it makes it possible for ordinary citizens to collectively advocate, participate and or influence policies that affect their lives.
Often referred to as the third sector, distinct from government and business, CSOs are, in most cases, intermediary institutions that exist under the banner of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), professional associations, foundations, independent research institutes, community-based organizations (CBOs), cooperatives, faith-based organisations, people’s organisations, social movements, and labour unions (CSI, 2012). Globally, both the number and scope of CSOs have multiplied, with many CSOs claiming to legitimately represent their respective constituencies in the public policy process. Although many state and supra state organizations are keen to include CSOs in their decision-making process, they are faced with the question of which organizations demonstrate legitimate claims to speak on behalf of citizens (Castiglione and Warren, 2006).
In Nepal, consecutive political failures have resulted in growing citizen distrust to the formal political representation system. Furthermore, irregular democratic renewal process at both the national and the local level have constricted meaningful representation of citizen claims and demands in state operation. At the same time, the CSOs in Nepal have increased both in number and scope. In recent years, in addition to traditional service delivery functions, CSOs have been found engaging in public policy functions, claiming legitimacy of representing community groups and issues otherwise neglected by the state (DFID, 2004). Through advocacy and mobilisation CSOs in Nepal have been found exerting pressure on the government to represent their agendas in policy formulation.
This paper discusses the legitimacy of these “non-electoral” (Saward, 2005: 182) representative claims originating from within CSOs, which demand for a rightful recognition of their agendas in public policy processes. Drawing upon the case of South Lalitpur Rural Electricity Cooperative (SLREC), the objective of this study is to study the institutional capacity of Community Electricity User Groups (CEUG) in Nepal, a growing CSO network, to assess the legitimacy of representative claims in policy.
Changing discourse on civil society
A contemporary, pragmatic challenge for democratic theory and practice is to identify the contexts in which governance mechanisms exhibit serious and systematic democratic deficits, and then to devise appropriate institutional remedies (Fung, 2004:671), the panacea to which, volumes of literature identify the need to involve, engage, and increase citizens’ access to the heart of public governance and decision-making. Gaventa (2004) mentions that globally there has been increasing attention given to strengthening citizen participation, “that is the ways in which ordinary citizens exercise voice through new forms of inclusion, consultation and/or mobilization designed to inform and influence larger institutions and policies.” Attention has also been given to strengthening the accountability and responsiveness of these institutions and policies through changes in institutional design, while at the same time increasing focus on enabling the structures for good government. He further explains that as participatory approaches are being scaled up from projects to enter the restricted domain of policy formulation, questions about how citizens engage and make demands on the state also come to the fore. Within this debate, citizens move from being simply “users or choosers” of public policies made by others, to shapers of policies themselves (Cornwall and Gaventa, 1999: 50). During the late 1960s and the 1970s, there was a growing demand in many parts of the world for citizens to be involved in decision-making processes that affected their lives, including in the social policy arena. The form of participation that emerged focused largely on establishing consultative mechanisms, often in the form of various types of civil society.
On the evolution and changing discourse on civil society, Harris (2006) elaborates on three distinct lines of thought that have guided and shaped the idea of civil society globally. The first view, shaped during the dying years of republican role, was perceived virtually coterminous with government, law enforcement, and the cluster of institutions that comprise the state. Till the beginning of the nineteenth century, an alternative conception evolved where it was viewed as the characteristic sphere of private property rights, commercial capitalism, and the various legal institutions and cultural support systems that these entail. The notion of civil society went into mid–twentieth century eclipse, and it was not until the late 1980s that it resurfaced in international and mass media debate as dissidents in Eastern Europe began to press for the development of autonomous public, legal, and social institutions that could act as counterweights to the overbearing powers of totalitarian states. Although it began as a reaction against communism, an explosion of interest in civil society across Western countries among political theorists and civic activists began to revive civil society discourses to explain certain perceived deficiencies in their own liberal and democratic regimens. In the modern state, the idea of civil society envisages a future where organisations speaking on behalf of voluntary non-profit and participatory movements will constitute a powerful third sector, on par with state governments and the international economy. In recent discourses, the idea of civil society is identified with the enunciation of universal standards of democracy, fair procedures, rule of law, and respect for human rights.
The Nepali discourse on CSOs encompasses a wide array of both formal and informal institutional arrangements. They confront a variety of pressures from citizens to address the complexity of development functions at both the local and national level, for which CSOs have advocated and demonstrated capacity in when partnering with the government in planning, monitoring, and influencing public policies (Dahal, 2001). However, the contextual reality of CSOs in Nepal is largely concentrated around NGOs, both national and international. Nepal has observed a mushrooming growth of NGOs from 220 in 1990 to 37,000 in 2007 (Dhakal, 2007), and the number is still growing. Since the 1950s, these organisations have complemented government actions by bridging funds, services, knowledge, and technology. As instruments of change, they have instituted innovative strategies towards promoting participatory forms of governance as well as advocating new agendas for policy contestation. However, their performance and accountability have been exaggerated.
Despite proliferation of NGOs throughout the developing world, they find themselves in stiff competition for available resources (Florini, 2006). The claim of these groups for a rightful place in public policy processes rests on claims that their expertise, representativeness, and processes of deliberation meet a standard that entitles them to influence, or even make decisions that have consequences for those they claim to represent.
Service user groups and non-electoral representation in Nepal
The question of legitimacy of representation among various civil society actors and institutions has been a constant source of contestation. Over the past few decades, discourses have shifted their curiosity towards larger-scale, mass-based rural movements (Cornwall and Gaventa, 1999:55), which are sufficiently close to the grassroots and can accountably address the political economy of their surroundings.
Nepal has an established and acclaimed history of CBOs successfully working for local social services and public goods. Initiatives at the grassroots level such as local forestry committees, water supply groups, irrigation and sanitation working groups, mothers’ groups, micro-hydroelectric groups, and dairy cooperatives (Yadoo and Cruickshank, 2010:2943) have surfaced as key grassroots institutions in strengthening development and democracy through collective action of associated members and service users. With the establishment of democracy in 1990 in Nepal, the implementation strategy of most development agencies, programmes, and projects has been group-led development and group-oriented activities. The typology of user groups in Nepal can be classified as customary and sponsored. Some are culturally embedded self-initiatives of local citizens, established as part of age old tradition or in response to contemporary exclusion or threat; others are interventions of outside origin (Biggs 2004).
The user groups in Nepal have been seen as successful in enabling access to services, strengthening local resource bases, mobilising multipurpose community development initiatives, and encouraging savings and credit for local investment, all of which can in many instances contribute to the goals of social inclusion and empowerment of group members. These groups principally exist to enhance the social and economic positions of group members and to give group members a stronger voice in policy and political arenas (Biggs 2004). Institutional arrangements such as user groups have been received with keen interest both locally, as important CBOs, and nationally, as potentially legitimate apparatuses of non-electoral representative entities for policy deliberations.
User groups across all seventy-five districts in Nepal function in various sectors, provisioning and managing infrastructure, services, and resources. The collective membership base of these user groups in sectors such as forestry, irrigation, drinking water management, and sanitation, etc., is estimated to be around 20 million users, which roughly accounts to almost two-thirds of Nepal’s nearly 30 million citizens. Users in the forestry sector alone account for almost 35 per cent of the country’s population (DoF, 2012). The basic difference between NGOs and user groups, in their legitimacy as representative non-electoral policy actors, is embedded in the institutionalised norms of collective action, autonomy, self-governance, and regulatory structures within user groups, which enable participatory management of local resources, infrastructure, and services; democratic decision-making; and adoption of egalitarian agendas. A large membership base endows unequivocal rights to user groups in making legitimate claims of representing the citizens, ensuring participation, and influencing policy processes in Nepal. Avowedly claiming to have strong democratic norms, they seem to demonstrate higher awareness of, and access to, member concerns. While they have been widely acclaimed for ensuring efficient service delivery, their claim of representing citizens’ voices in policy processes, and their institutional capacity to access public voices to influence policy processes and decisions, have received very little attention.
Community-based electricity distribution in Nepal
Community Electricity User Groups (CEUGs) represent a growing network of users in forty-eight districts of Nepal where over 16.5 million people are devoid of grid electricity, and only 8 per cent of the rural populace has access to grid electricity (NEA 2011), the role and contribution of CEUGs in decentralised rural electrification has been paramount. Promulgation of the Community Electrification By-laws in 2003 has facilitated both CEUGs formation and electricity distribution, electrifying over 116,000 households across rural Nepal (NACEUN 2012). The demonstrable success of CEUGs has enabled policy recognition. The National Association of Community Electricity Users-Nepal (NACEUN) formed in 2005, has been acting as the collective and representative voice of all CEUGs, advocating for the protection and promotion of equitable rights of its associated electricity users. This national association has been continuously raising its voice at various policy platforms, representing the needs and challenges of operating within the current centralised and generation-oriented national electricity regime. These policy agendas raised by NACEUN call for appropriate policy and legislative reforms to both address the identity of user-based community electrification in Nepal and ease current bottlenecks in promotion, development, and extension of user-based programmes. Given that NACEUN is a relatively nascent network, its institutional governance and management capacity are still evolving. However, the legitimacy of claims in representation put forward by these user groups remains crucial in identifying user-based community electrification within the national discourse on non-electoral representation in Nepal.
Assessing legitimacy of non-electoral claims in representation
The legitimacy of policies and actors primarily rests on the extent to which they legitimately represent, or can successfully claim to represent, some group or larger set of social interests. The shifts in styles of governance from state-centric and more formal modes to plural and often informal modes of engagement with citizens at local, national, and supranational levels raise questions on the scope and legitimacy of traditional notions of political representation (Saward, 2005). A number of theorists have criticised features of electoral and legislative representation, mostly on the grounds of unjust historical and contemporary exclusions, therefore justifying the growing discourse on non-electoral representation.
Within political science discourses, non-electoral representation is being identified as an effective means of enhancing public sector governance to facilitate active citizen participation in public planning, decision-making, and implementation, as well as towards ensuring and strengthening responsiveness, transparency, and accountability of government actions.
Saward (2008) explains that representation is about a claim representing the politics of, and dynamic relationship between, claimant and population represented, and not a given fact or a possession. He further explains his ideas on core ingredients to a representative claim, “Maker-Subject-Object-Referent-Audience” and says that “we might elect a politician or a party into office, but the simple fact of their election, important though that is, does not mean they can or will speak for the range of interests and identities that make us up.” Saward further explains the basis of representative claims by non-electoral entities in addition to presenting a few key ideas on the basis of which these claims can be legitimately substantiated. He classifies claims by grouping them into three categories based on “deeper roots” representative claims, “expertise and special credentials” claims, and “wider interests and new voices” claims. Claims can be substantiated on the basis of “connecting” criteria, which focus on the positioning of claimants within certain formal and informal structures that connect them to institutions in a way that may bolster their democratic credentials; “confirming” criteria, which focus on whether constituencies of varied kinds do or can accept claims in a way that lends them some democratic credibility; and “untaintededness” criteria, which focus on claims located deliberately outside governmental institutions. He further explains that fidelity of cases to confirming and connecting criteria enables authorisation, or apparent and episodic prior consent; and fidelity to an idea of untaintedness enables authenticity, or apparent and constant responsive consent. The distinctive strength of key types of non-electoral claims tends to be closely linked to underlying values of authenticity. Saward further calls for recognition of the fact that constituencies are no longer only singular, territorial, fixed, and possessed of transparent interests. This, he says, “will begin to recognise the inevitability, even the democratic necessity, of a wide array of other, non-electoral representative claims in complex contemporary democratic politics.”
The nature of the study encompassed the need for qualitative data to be partly complimented with quantitative information, and be generated using primary and secondary sources. Primary data has been collected through the assimilation of responses sought from SLREC members and electricity users, and key informants involved with the community electrification program at the local and the national level. The study employed semi-structured interviews, in-depth interviews, focus group discussion and observation for primary data collection. The scope of this study encompasses empirical findings from the field site at Pyutar VDC, which is one of the working VDCs within the scope of SLREC. To ensure inclusive data collection, the study attempted in maximizing respondent diversity with respect to gender, ethnicity, economy and political affiliations. Secondary data has been collected through the review of relevant literature, documented meeting minutes, and records at SLREC and NACEUN. In support of the study objective, a bottom-up tracing has been conducted, where relevance and relatedness of local electricity user claims from Pyutar VDC were identified with the broader issues and agendas at SLREC and with the national policy agendas being advocated by the national association. Data obtained from both primary and secondary sources were coded and analysed to present the findings.
South Lalitpur Rural Electricity Cooperative
Established in 2000, South Lalitpur Rural Electricity Cooperative is a first of its kind CBO successfully applying for grid extension and taking over local distribution of electricity from the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) (Yadoo and Cruickshank, 2010:2944). Beginning its electrification campaign with an 80–20 co-partnership scheme, where 80 percent of the total capital cost is financed through government grants and the remaining 20 percent is collected by the respective applicant agency or community, it has successfully electrified over 4,011 households to date(SLREC, 2011). Beginning with 157 shareholders in 1999–2000, there are altogether 825 shareholders, including individuals and institutional shareholders, as of December 2011. Classification of 632 shareholders from 2010 shows that altogether, 436 shareholders were male, 42 female, and the remaining 154 were institutional shares (SLREC, 2011). Encompassing 19 VDCs south Lalitpur District, it is among one of the largest electricity user cooperatives in Nepal.
Structurally, SLREC operations can be classified into three distinct tiers: the general assembly, executive committee, and transformer sub-committee (TSC). The general assembly is the apex governing body at SLREC, which convenes every year to discuss, deliberate, and endorse key strategies and policy-level issues regarding community electrification in the 19 VDCs of south Lalitpur. A major responsibility of the general assembly is to choose the executive and the accounts committee every three years. Member shareholders, representatives from the district development committee, the village development committee, and transformer sub-committee, along with invited observers and dignitaries, participate in the general assembly.
The executive committee is the responsible authority for operational and man-agement issues at SLREC. The general assembly, through election or mutual consensus, chooses 13 members for the executive committee, which is comprised of a chairperson, vice-chairperson, secretary, treasurer and nine general members for a term of three years on a voluntary basis. It manages the day-to-day operations at SLREC. The committee members meet on a monthly basis to discuss agendas collected and tabled by the general manager and the chairperson.
Enabled through the Transformer Sub-Committee Guidelines, TSCs are local grassroots governance units that primarily liaise between consumer households in the project area, SLREC executive committee and the general assembly. While they support the operation and implementation of electrification at the local level, periodic interaction with local citizens and consumers allows TSCs to bring attention to issues and problems of local users in reporting to SLREC executive committee for appropriate action. There are 73 TSCs operational within SLREC’s working area of 19 VDCs. All TSCs are formed at the beginning of the electrification campaign at the concerned localities. A local gathering is facilitated by SLREC, where representatives of local political parties, VDC members and ward representatives, representatives of schools and health posts, key community leaders, and members of the general public are invited for a discussion at the beginning of the electrification campaign in the locality. The local gathering, through general consensus or voting, chooses nine members for the positions of chairperson, vice-chairperson, secretary, treasurer and five general members. All positions within the TSC are voluntary for a term of two years. Operational scope and jurisdiction of the TSC is limited to the load capacity of one transformer unit, i.e., the total number of consumers connected through one electricity transformer. To enable wider representation of the voice and claims of local consumer and to support democratic decision-making at SLREC, TSCs have been integrated as institutional shareholders. A total of 58 (out of the 73) TSCs have already bought shares at SLREC.
Community Electrification at Pyutar VDC
Located just 14 kilometers away from the district headquarter; Pyutar VDC lies in the south of Lalitpur, bordering Makwanpur District. Pyutar is characterised by its geographic remoteness and limited accessibility. With 326 households and a total population size of 1,903 (985 males and 918 females), Pyutar’s two largest ethnic groups are Tamang (1,196) and Brahmin (410) (CBS 2001). While distribution of electricity through SLREC began in 2004, the households in Pyutar VDC were only electrified in 2010–2011. Currently, 195 households in eight wards of the VDC have been electrified through three TSCs, with only ward three remaining to be electrified.
Of the three TSCs, Pyutar Transformer Sub-committee is the largest, extending its service to households in five wards of the VDC. Established in 2009–2010 through a community gathering of over eighty community members, representatives for Pyutar Transformer Sub-committee were selected through a general consensus. Although the term of the current TSC has expired, a new committee has not been formulated.
Connectedness of local issues to nation policy agendas
Key narratives at Pyutar VDC were based around access to electricity, the problem of load shedding, and the quality of electricity supplied. Extension of the grid and the beginning of the electrification campaign began with exuberance and hope among community members as it was promised that all households in the VDC would be electrified. However, as it stands, only 195 households in Pyutar VDC have access to electricity. While the potential and the benefits of electricity are being realised by a select few in the VDC who have increased access to electrical appliances and electricity-based entrepreneurship, over 60 percent of households still do not have such opportunities (FGD, 2012). Households without access to electricity have been forced to rely on solar systems or traditional kerosene lamps, tukki, depending upon their levels of income. Load shedding troubles those already with a connection, which does not compliment local peak demand from six o’clock to eight o’clock in the evening. Additionally, the low capacity of the extension line, the users’ distance from the national distribution centre, and frequent disturbances in other parts of the extended distribution line often result in the supply of low quality electricity.
• From the various issues and problems collected from the 19 VDCS, key agendas in community electrification being voiced by SLREC are as follows:
• Foremost, the state should recognise the rights of the rural populace to access essential services like electricity, and should introduce dutiful policy measures that ensure equal access for all rural households.
• A new institutional structure should be created for the management and governance of community electrification, and provisions for a separate basket fund at the national and district levels should be established to enable an efficient, transparent, and accountable community electrification regime.
• Problems of poor quality electricity should be resolved: primarily the lack of a high capacity transmission line and a distribution centre solely dedicated to serving the 19 VDCs of south Lalitpur.
• There should be a change in the tariff structure that duly considers local demand and consumption patterns to enable a just electricity regime.
Through the federal governance structure of NACEUN, issues and agendas from across 207 community electrification user-groups are brought into consideration of the central executive committee. The annual meeting of the national council enables representatives of all user-groups to collectively discuss and deliberate on various policy challenges and bottlenecks for smooth and just implementation of community electrification programs across the nation. Collective mandate and policy agendas are framed through the national council and the general assembly of NACEUN for policy discourse and advocacy in promoting community electrification and the rights of its users. Key issues being advocated by NAECUN in community electrification at the policy level are as following:
• Owing to the difference in mandate of the community electrification move-ment and the objective of NEA, there is a need to create a new and inclusive governing institution for the management, monitoring, and promotion of community electrification.
• Creation of a separate basket fund at the national and district levels for community electrification is needed and should be managed by the new governing institution.
• Inclusive and equitable power sector reform is needed through targeted policies for promotion and development of rural electrification. Also, policies to accommodate the interests and agendas of the rural population are needed (Ghimire, 2011).
Decision making structure and user representation
A cooperative model has enabled SLREC to adopt a ‘one member, one vote’ policy, ensuring balance of power and authority among members, supporting institutionalisation of stronger democratic practices and norms. The participation and involvement of communities in the provisioning, management, and monitoring of electricity have resulted in higher efficiency compared to the state service delivery apparatus. Localised decision-making practices have enabled better prioritisation and more transparency and accountability of the cooperative’s actions. The level of participation and representation of local electricity users with the cooperatives’ decision-making structure plays an important role in preventing exacerbation of socioeconomic, cultural, and political divides within communities.
In the case of SLREC, two major issues surface with regard to participation and representation of local users in the decision-making process. The first issue pertains to the differences in the role and capacity of cooperative service users and members. Two distinct profiles exist with regard to the governance and management of SLRECs. Currently, the cooperative provides services for more than 4,011 households in the 19 VDCs of South Lalitpur. While an average of four to five individuals benefit directly from a single household connection, only the legitimate owner of the house is a registered user at the cooperative in reality. The users participate in local planning and management functions and represent their concerns and problems at the cooperative through appropriate formal and informal channels. However, there are only 825 shareholder members who can directly participate in actual decision-making roles by casting their votes. While the role and capacity of service users can be seen as passive and secondary, with only access to decision-making, 825 shareholder members within the cooperative have both access and control over management and policy decisions at SLREC. While users’ concerns are actually represented in the cooperative agendas, their inability to decide on their own is structurally constrained. Though SLREC has recently made a policy level decision to make it compulsory for all new users to purchase at least one share – to be progressively mandated for old users – its enforcement has been sluggish especially among old users. A clear privilege of making key decisions regarding cooperative leadership, strategic direction, and agenda setting limited to only 825 shareholder members also raises questions about the limited accountability of the cooperative.
Despite the cooperative’s effort at promoting the involvement and participation of women in its governance, their actual representation at the general assembly as shareholder members and on the executive committee is limited. Weak representation of women at SLREC’s agenda-setting and decision-making functions has resulted in the marginalisation of gender-neutral agendas. The agendas being raised at the cooperative are weak with respect to the perspectives of females in the context of challenges and constrains of community electrification.
Democratic practice in self-renewal
The issue of electrification has been a playground for political contestation in the 19 VDCs of south Lalitpur. Since its beginning, the electrification movement has faced criticism of being controlled by members and sympathizers from one of the major national political parties. Other political forces at the local and the district level have even claimed that the cooperative’s actions have been used as a medium to exercise political agendas. These claims were found to be widely accepted by service users, members of the TSC, and local political parties in Pyutar VDC. Local party politics was found to be integrated in the management and governance of community electrification at Pyutar VDC, with some political representatives being represented at the TSC as well as the executive committee of SLREC.
A comparative analysis of the leadership of SLREC from 2005 to date shows that during this period, three different executive committees have been formed; two formed with consensus in 2004 and 2007, and political diplomacy was sought in 2010 to forge consensus for the formation of the current executive committee. The comparison of the executive committee members from 2004 and 2007 indicate that ten out of the total 13 members remained intact; one member from the accounts committee of 2004 had been included as a member of the executive committee of 2007. Four members were found to have been on all three executive committees, including one member who served in the executive committees from 2004 and 2007 and has been included in the current accounts committee. Out of the total 39 member positions available in all three executive committees, new members had been introduced for 15 committee positions of which nine are on the current executive committee. Also, female representation on the executive committee was found to be low, and the same member was the only female on both the committees of 2004 and 2007. The current executive committee has no female representation, as there are no provisions for reservation.
With the changed national political climate, the political tag associated with SLREC and its leadership came as a major challenge in building consensus for collective decision making. Local political leadership outside central governing structure criticised SLREC of exclusive and failing to institute regularity of self-renewal process – elections. To address this issue, for the first time in the history of SLREC, elections in 2010 were held during the general assembly.
Accountability of local representatives
The operations of the Pyutar TSC and initiatives in community electrification at Pyutar VDC were found to be primarily controlled by selected individuals and a few political party representatives. Collection of user and member concerns at Pyutar has been largely through informal channels, which exist within the social dynamics of Pyutar VDC, such as informal day-to-day gatherings at the tea shop, milk processing centre, etc. The cooperative does not actually mandate TSCs to be accountable for pressing local concerns, as they fear losing local representatives who are serving voluntarily. However, for the local users and residents of Pyutar, the Pyutar TSC is the sole authority in electrification and thus they do hold the TSC accountable for delays in service and they expect it to represent their concerns at SLREC. Prevalence of the all-party mechanism in budgetary allocations for electrification has created an overlapping leadership nexus, with one individual performing as both a political party leader and a TSC representative. However, this has further strengthened political accountability of local representatives, as they are judged by users and locals based on their effort and dedication to working for local electrification and user agendas. Since these representatives have been asked to appear at public gatherings to answer and commit to promises made by SLREC for electrification, their political legitimacy is dependent on their ability to successfully represent and lobby for agendas raised by local users and residents.
Legitimacy of representative claims
Integrating agendas of individual user-groups through an elaborate representative structure has allowed NACEUN a legitimate base to advocate for the rights of its associated members and individual users for the promotion and development of community and rural electrification. The inclusion and participation of individual user groups in an accessible and democratic setup has helped establish the representative legitimacy of NACEUN as the sole collective voice of both the community and rural electrification. The due recognition of this voice among policy actors and institutions in Nepal has enabled NACEUN’s entry into avenues of policy formulation.
Tracing the voice and agendas of local users through community electricity distribution institutions has enabled a better understanding of NACEUN’s claims of being the official voice representing local agendas in the national policy discourse. On reviewing the origin and journey of local narratives in Pyutar VDC, it can be said that users’ concerns and problems have been well represented at SLREC, through which these agendas have transformed into policy agendas of the network. Notably, much of NACEUN’s noticeable representation in public policy formulation process have been to further the claims of its nationwide users. Key achievements of the network include the National Planning Commission of Nepal recognizing community electrification as a key intervention area in the Three Year Interim Plan of 2007. This interim plan proposed to devise necessary policy and institutional framework for the promotion and development of the national grid-connected community rural electrification programme. Similarly, NACEUN was also successful to bring forward their agendas for policy reform during the tenure of the constituent assembly. Sighting an opportune moment with the tabled draft electricity bill at the constituent assembly, it took strides in engaging, lobbying and mobilizing lawmakers for putting forward institutional agendas. Once the draft bill was tabled, a total of 143 amendments were registered by various lawmakers. Out of which over 130 amendments originated from the reform discourse initiated by NACEUN. Key reform amendments introduced pertained to institutional and governance reform of the power sector in promoting community electrification and power sector equity.
The user-based community electrification programme with a collective agenda beyond lighting, upholds the capacity of collective community action in ensuring an egalitarian, efficient, and decentralised service delivery model. Through a growing network of user groups across Nepal, the movement encapsulates the ethos of a successful community-based initiative that empowers rural communities, households, and institutions to collectively work towards management of a complex development service, such as the extension and distribution of electricity. Complexities in community electrification are not limited to local distribution and management; they are, in fact, spread over a larger domain of national policies and legislation. The limited scope of national resource policies and institutions, including hydropower development, has failed to recognise the need for and potential of involving communities in developing sustainable policy agendas. Narrow policies and perfunctory promises of political representatives have failed to address the concerns and challenges of rural communities, and especially the need and importance of electricity. Given such a context, the user-based community and rural electrification movement in Nepal has paved a prospect for rural communities and electricity users to unify in advocating for the protection and promotion of collective agendas. The growing constituency of CEUGs and users across Nepal and the increasing recognition of dialogues initiated by NACEUN substantiate the importance of non-electoral modes of representation in public policy formulation.
While the call for establishing an accommodating policy process for non-electoral actors will strengthen representation of marginalised voices, it is also important to address the vulnerabilities associated within these representative claims. To enable an accessible, equitable, and accountable representation system within non-electoral institutions, it is imperative that co-option and coercion of power in decision-making and representation be duly addressed, especially at the local level. The accountability of leadership (representatives), institutional decision-making structure and democratic process in self-renewal within the CEUGs and its governance are the noted critical issues from this study. These variables play a major part in shaping who participates, who represents, and who decides. Though the concerns of local users have been found to be well-encapsulated in national agendas, decision-making at Pyutar TSC and SLREC have been largely under the control of a select few individuals, mostly supporting a single political party. While control, support, and influence of political leadership have hindered inclusion and participation, in the case of SLREC, they have given rise to new avenues to demand accountability at the same time. It has been seen that politics and development are inseparable, and leadership capacities can switch between electoral and non-electoral spaces. The idea of a non-electoral representative agency, especially in the form of a user-based CBO network, provides a space for electoral contestation, thus building overlapping lines of accountability for both electoral and non-electoral agencies in the promotion and protection of local voices.