The National Rural Electrification Cooperative Association (NRECA) conducted a feasibility study in 1976 to develop electricity supply system in rural areas of the country. The Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB) was established the following year based on the report and recommendations of that survey. As a pilot project, 13 Palli Bidyut Samity (PBS) were set up by 1980. NRECA provided technical support and USAID provided the financial assistance. Since then, the United States has been considered the largest partner country in developing the electricity supply system in rural areas of the Bangladesh.
Currently, 462 upazilas of 61 districts in the country have come under 100 percent electricity coverage. BREB is conducting electricity service activities in rural areas through 80 PBSs. NRECA and USAID have been major partners and supporters of BREB so far in the expansion of electricity coverage in rural areas. Apart from building the PBSs, the activities of BREB have also been conducted mainly on the model of NRECA.
The first electric lamp of East Bengal was lit in the streets of Dhaka in 1901. In the next seven decades, the expansion of power generation and distribution system in the country was very limited. The supply system was completely urban centric. Rural areas were out of electricity service. The opportunity to focus on the development of electricity supply system in the rural areas took pace mainly after independence.
The challenges of extending electricity supply to rural areas in war-torn countries were many. Infrastructural facilities including roads were unfavorable for expansion activities. It was almost impossible to build a transmission system in remote areas. In this grave scenario, the US Rural Electrification Administration (REA) (now Rural Utility Service-RUS) and NRECA's cooperative model was chosen to expand the electricity coverage in rural areas of Bangladesh.
This model has shown remarkable success in expanding electrification to rural areas of the United States. It was the middle of the thirties of the last century. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the President of the United States. Almost 90 percent of the houses in rural areas of the country were still without electricity service. REA was formed by an executive order of President Roosevelt in 1933 to quickly provide electricity to the rural folks of the United States. In the beginning, due to lack of investment, the activities of REA were not gaining momentum. Then, a model of extending electricity to rural areas through consumer-owned non-profit cooperatives was adopted in 1937. In 1942, such rural electricity societies simultaneously formed NRECA. Despite the hullabaloo of World War II, by 1953, the associations were able to bring more than 90 percent of rural farms in the United States under electricity service.
Bangladesh also followed the same path in extending electricity in rural areas. After independence, the electricity supply system in the country was completely concentrated in urban areas. In a 1976 study, NRECA International recommended that reliable and affordable electricity supply can play a major role in the development of irrigation, better education and health systems. In addition, it will improve the quality of life in rural areas of Bangladesh. Based on the recommendations of that survey, BREB was set up.
When asked about this, BREB's former member (planning) Anjan Kanti Das told Bonik Barta, "NRECA is basically a cooperative organization of the country's power sector. BREB was founded following their footsteps. The US company's task was to electrify 100% of the states of the United States. BREB has worked on rural electrification till 2012 following their revenue model. Later, when the government allocated various projects for 100% electrification, BREB moved away from revenue-based electrification. BREB has reached the current stage by following the model of NRECA. In terms of electrification of rural areas, the model has played an effective role in the massive electrification program of BREB.
An ordinance was issued by the government in 1977 regarding the formation of BREB. An initiative to form the association was taken in the form of a pilot project. By 1980, 13 Palli Bidyut Samity were formed. NRECA also assisted in the preparation of expert-consultants at the local level. At that time, the number of rural customers under the PBSs were only 13 thousand. At present, except for three hilly districts and some inaccessible coastal areas, almost hundred percent of the population in the rural areas of the country have come under the power supply network of BREB.
One of the first 13 PBSs was in Sirajganj. Currently, it is operating under the name of Sirajganj Palli Bidyut Samity-1. Abu Ashraf Md. Saleh, the Senior General Manager of the PBS told Bonik Barta, "The activities of the PBS in the country started from the model of the US rural electricity company NRECA." Although the service and work style has changed a lot, our customer base has increased. In Sirajganj, the number of customers in the area under our Samity is now exceeds half a million (540,000). 100% of the area under the Samity has come under electrification.
NRECA provided technical assistance in the activities of these 13 PBSs. Financial support was provided by USAID. Another such association is Jessore Palli Bidyut Samity-1. Abu Bakar Shibli, the General Manager of the Samity, told Bonik Barta, "When the Palli Bidyut Samity was launched across the country, the US company NRECA worked as a consultant. At that time, they helped us with all the technical supports. On occasions, these PBSs have carried out activities with the help of various donor organizations including USAID. At the same time, we have been assisted from government funds.
According to BREB data, the success of joint-partnership-based PBSs has also attracted other foreign donors. So far, more than 16 organizations have provided financial support in establishing 67 PBSs later on. Besides, NRCEA has also assisted BREB through system design, construction of substations and transmission lines, training of officials of BREB and PBS and creation of uniform accounting standards between the two organizations, adoption of policies and managerial activities. Apart from this, the organization has also supported BREB's construction projects undertaken through USAID by providing engineers, linemen, managers and manpower. The agency's partnership with NRECA and USAID has been very successful so far.
The organization's website claims that the average annual income of families under the coverage of electricity service in the country has increased by 250 percent since NRECA International joined BREB activities. BREB is currently assisting 39 PBS in building capacity to meet the growing electricity demand of the rapidly growing population in rural areas. The organization is going to be involved in monitoring the quality improvement activities of the Rural Electric Distribution System project financed by the World Bank. In addition, NRECA International will be involved in the construction and development of new lines with 110 substations, 31 switching stations, 32 sets of river crossing towers.
(This report is prepared with the assistance of by Bonik Barta's Jessore correspondent Abdul Quader and Sirajganj correspondent Ashok Banerjee. Translated by Sabidin Ibrahim)