Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB) was founded in 1977 following the promulgation of Rural Electrification Ordinance, 1977, with the goal of electrifying rural Bangladesh. At its inception, its broad objectives included using electricity for creating opportunities to boost agricultural production and expedite socio-economic growth in the rural areas, thereby facilitating improvement of living standard and quality of life of the grassroots people. As of January 2020, BREB had 80 rural electricity cooperatives called PalliBidyut Samity (PBS) across the country that boasted of 28.10 million consumers in the rural areas, including 25.60 million domestic home subscribers, 0.257 million irrigation consumers, 1.731 million commercial subscribers, and 0.183 million industrial consumers. Over 83 thousand villages have been electrified by BREB in 462 upazilas by constructing 486 thousand kilometres of distribution lines. BREB is now the largest power distribution agency in the country providing over 31.60 million power connections out of a total 40 million around the country.
In the above backdrop, a recent report on BREB published in a local vernacular daily has caught the attention of many. Headlined '21 lakh connections by going from door to door', it claims that BREB has provided 7.50 million connections during the past two and a half years, and 28 per cent of these connections were extended through a program called 'Peddlers of Light' (AlorFerrywalla). The program was started at Harinakunduupazila of Jhenaidaha district on 24 December 2018. Power connections were set up in just five minutes whenever any subscriber sought it. In this way, 54 consumers got the connections in only four days. The program was then temporarily stopped due to parliamentary election, but launched all over the country after a week's gap by the BREB top brass. And subsequently, as many as 2.10 million BREB subscribers got power connections at home in just two and a half years after that. The pioneer of this highly innovative program was a field-level official (AGM) of BREB Sheikh Abdur Rahman who thought that such an initiative would help curb corruption and protect consumers from the mischiefs resorted to by middlemen.
According to BREB sources, about 7.50 million subscribers got new power connections from the public sector entity from January 2019 to July this year. Among these, 27.52 per cent connections were given by the 'peddlers of light' by going from door to door of consumers' residences. The program is now playing a critical part in the government's drive to ensure 100 per cent power connections at the grassroots level. Under it, ten vans were pressed into service by each of the 80 PBS across the country. These 800 vans roamed around villages and greatly expedited the process of setting up power connections. Besides, various types of services were also provided from these vans manned by BREB technicians. A total of 288 upazilas have already been brought under 100 per cent electrification through this effort, and the remaining upazilas are also expected to achieve this target within weeks. Previously, the rural people did not know that connections could be obtained without paying extra money. Now their views have undergone change as the 'Alor Ferrywalla' program has eliminated the opportunities for illicit transactions. The program received the best innovative program award of the Power Division in 2019.
It could be gathered that the van carries meters, service drop cables, official receipt books for security deposits and other payments, application forms, and other necessary papers and is accompanied by two linemen, and one wiring inspector or junior engineer. If all documents of the subscriber are found to be in order, the specified fee is taken on the spot and new connection is given within five minutes. Apart from providing connection, related problems or difficulties faced by the subscribers are also resolved instantly.
The Power Division has already directed other power distribution companies to replicate the success of the BREB's 'AlorFerrywalla' program. The Dhaka Power Distribution Company (DPDC) also started this service of ferrying electricity connections in Dhaka city through vans in March last year. Apart from giving connections, awareness generating publicity was also conducted through that program, especially on preventing accidents. Even three mini-trucks were deployed for the purpose in 18 distribution service zones. And within a span of ten days, as many as 2,500 consumers received power connections under the program. However, it had to be stopped following declaration of general holiday all over the country in the last week of March 2020. The DPDC authorities is now hoping to restart the program after the Covid-19 situation improves, as good responses were received from the subscribers and additional services like changing meters or correcting errors could also be provided under it.
The state-owned Infrastructure Investment Facilitation Company (IIFC) released a survey report last May on 1,400 subscribers in the power sector. The survey found that 52 per cent consumers took electricity connections through middlemen, which indicated the dominance of these intermediaries as well as pervasive corruption in the sector. Therefore the 'AlorFerrywalla' program can be a game-changer in eliminating graft as well as exploitations of middlemen faced by the ordinary public while obtaining power connections.
Relevant experts, however, point out that till now most of the electricity connections given have been outside the purview of 'AlorFerrywall', and widespread irregularities could not yet be stopped there. Besides, uninterrupted electricity could not be supplied in many cases despite granting connections, and distribution expenses are also constantly on the rise. Moreover, state-owned entities like the BREB should desist from expanding its network in townships, and instead concentrate its efforts in remote rural areas of the country, for which it was established in the first place. However, the success of the 'AlorFerrywalla' program demonstrate that political cum administrative goodwill at the higher levels accompanied by innovative zeal of the field-level officials can produce great synergies that can hugely benefit the country's public services recipients at the grassroots level.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.