A few days back, I happened to visit and inspect a 300KWh off-grid solar system installed at Kheer Sar, a village community in Cholistan desert. This community is located almost 125 kilometres away from Bahawalpur town, deep down in the sand dunes. Total distance time from the provincial capital is 600km approximately. As a pilot project, it was executed by the Government of Punjab’s Qauid-e-Azam Solar Park Company that owns 100MW solar Park in South Punjab. It has energized some 175 houses in the village through local electric wiring networks. Lambardar of that mouza, informed me, that they had lived with a comfortable summer this year, as the newly gained fans, have provided them a sigh of relief in the sweltering heat of rohi. We had an open, consultative and productive discussion with other members of the community as well. Being a development practitioner and proponent of rural development, I put the community’s elders some specific questions with a view to ascertain whether they accept that the newly installed solar system as their community’s property and do they have any plan to take over, maintain and ensure that their next summers are better than this year. I am going to discuss these questions in next paras with a summary of their answers and analysis that will help us to understand the prevailing dynamics of rural institutions, sense of ownership in communities with a business acumen to improve their livelihood prospects, if we can shirk from the rent seeking mindset, envisioning for future as a community and believing in the growth through educating and building life skills of their children. Are they happy with the government for installing this system? The answer was a thumping yes. They informed us that they had been struggling to get electricity for more than three and half decades, but to no avail, as due to their being far away from any main town. Providing electricity to such isolated village communities might not be making an economic practicality for the electricity distribution companies. There had also been many political promises in past to get this community electrified. Installation of this off grid system was beyond their imagination viz-a-viz providing them with lights during night and fans for 24/7. However, they expressed their concern to the effect that supply of electricity is at minimal level and hence more solar panels should be installed to increase the capacity so as to ensure system stability. Are they willing to take over, maintain and run the system? This question rather dissipated their excitement as why they should take over the system. To substantiate their inability to own, the Lambardar vehemently told us that neither they have might like the state, nor did they possess any capacity to take over the system. In reply thereto, it was explained to them that the government has spent this much money for the betterment of their lives with an aim help them to improve their living conditions, but they were so reluctant to show their willingness to take over, maintain and run the system. My worry was what would happen with this massive investment and their energisation prospects when after two years, the contract for operations and maintenance (O&M), would come to an end. Should the government continue hiring new human resource and pay them till their retirement just to provide electricity to them by operating solar installation. Are they generating some economic activity with this electricity? Answers to this question are even more interesting. We were told that this electricity is being utilized to run their fans and lights. An old man, with a typical indigenous wit, was happy to share that he has already started, perhaps for the first time on his personal TV, songs and movies of across-the-border entertainment industry. He has a right to his choice. One of my team members pointed out to them that they have plenty of milking animals, in shape of Cholistani breed cows, that survive on natural grazing sites so why don’t they get chillers to preserve their milk for day or two till it is purchased and picked by the Milk Companies working in nearby area. Another idea could be solar-run small flour mills as they are bound to travel for miles alternatively. These concepts did not enthral the community and instead they kept their focus on increasing solar panels, fans and lights. Are they forming some management committee for running this small solar park? As a believer of developing and strengthening rural institutions, with this underlying thought, that no community can grow if it doesn’t develop sense of ownership for its group or installations meant for them. Our problems! Our solutions. On my wish to make a community organization to own, earn, operate and run this solar system on sustainable basis, the response was lukewarm. There was no appetite to make any organization or management committee for the community development. More emphasis was on recruiting some people by the government to operate and keep connected those people. The community leader, however, has managed to get his semi-literate brother as guard-cum-operator with the O&M contractor. But my case is that personal benefit of some leading individual must not impede development of ownership conduits in any community. Will they pay for electricity charges? No. In case this electricity is being supplied by the distribution company, on average, a consumer in the village must have been paying on average a subsidized rate of Rs10 i.e., calculated as per the use of units that determines the tariff category by the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA). But here the government has installed a system to provide electricity through solar, but the community is not ready to pay a single rupee. This rent seeking trend will take such communities to nowhere. They should think how small it is and should at least pay it to meet the operational expenses of the plant with an assurance of unstopped supply in the years to come. They should plan for its wear and tear. Someone must take care of the plant, transmission and distribution network and who may be made duty-bound to pay for the aggregative O&M costs. It must be, of course, the community itself. After this informal deliberations and exchange of thoughts, we were moving towards our vehicles, when an official pointed out about a primary School from where one KWh solar system was stolen. It was provided by the government under a school solarisation scheme. I inquired from the Lambardar, who responded that ‘it’s an open and unrestricted area and anyone could steel it’. Just a sideline, a community that is unable to protect its primary school system, what would they do with this off-grid small-scale solar park. The purpose is not to criticize any person or community but to highlight the languid and irresponsible approach of these under-privileged inhabitants of the area. If we need to build, we will have to educate our rural communities the art of developing and protecting themselves. This art entails understanding community development, learning how to make rural institutions, growing local organization and instilling ownership. We must inculcate managerial skills in the DNA of our rural communities and make them responsive to the call and need of the day. A tall order but there is no dearth of examples of breaking shackles of poverty through strengthening rural institutions, community partnership and local ownership models. However, there had been some deeper fissures in the policies of the government concerning rural institutions. The local government systems architectured by political-backing have not helped the evolution of local governance structures; what to say several examples experienced in the past. Rural-urban divide could not have been materialized. Big towns virtually compelled the decision-makers not to imagine or design the workable rural institutions in Pakistan. There is no denying the fact that metropolitans and tehsil or taluka towns have their own urban peculiarities, but the rural focus has been withered away, over a long time, in the rumpus of urban development. In an agricultural country like Pakistan, the rural economy is the mainstay, where we as state functionaries have miserably failed to invest and nurture logically. Result is the overburdened urban towns struggling even harder to coup up ever-increasing sewerage, sanitation and drinking water needs. Cities have not been innovative enough to adjust the urban ecologies. Precincts of these towns have turned into semi-slums with health, law and order and civic amenities issues. We need to develop their micro economies by inviting our attention to evolving rural institutions. Urban lens should not be allowed to hinder our rural fabric to prosper. There is another shade of the story as well. We have to analyse the logical framework for rural development, if any, critically and examine whether it has promoted innovation in designing and structuring rural institutions. To me, the slogans for reforming local governments have eclipsed the rural development. It has impeded the ways for thinking and looking rural development from different angles – other than the local government. We have provincial departments for local governments, wherein, the subject of rural and community development is forcefully clubbed. Till now, the local governments have not taken any concrete shape because we are so reluctant to decentralize the financial or administrative decision-making. Now the time has come, when we need to adopt or replicate the world standards and move towards the separation of rural and community development from local government. Local government provides a skeleton of governance and political business process re-engineering, but the rural and community development relates more to soft skills of organizing ourselves and exploiting the rural potential to an optimum level. In other words, we must softwires for it by making informed decisions to grow rural institutions for result-oriented purposes. The existing system is entangled, perhaps for the rights reasons, with the hardware. The chief interests of local government departments have normally been construction of village roads, sewerage systems, localized drainage solutions, waste management, town planning and collection of municipal revenues. The point that I want to emphasize here is that, as the local government system is delinked from evolving rural institutions, we need to separate the rural and community development from the pain lists of the respective local governments. Let the people living in the rural communities take care of themselves. Provide them funds, the impetus and stimulus to do where they not only get the ‘readymade foods’. They should be trained in rural development and take their local decisions with collective wisdom and eventually implement them at their own. Like the solar system example that I narrated above, it is imperative that they should be trained in the art of maintaining the systems provided by the governments or installed by their own contributions. We should develop the rural institutions and let us adopt this local governance model. Let people be owner of their fate and be responsible citizens for maintaining their community asset. Government should only chip in with stimulus type funding and such rural institutions should take care of the rest. They have a tremendous potential to pool up resources, decide their destiny, loop everyone around and galvanize the pooled resources for themselves. The blueprint lurking in my mind is to separate the rural and community development department from the local government. Fluidity of local governments will not let the rural institutions and communities grow. Separate them, let the rural and community development department emerge and take its own shape; with a mandate to make hatchery of nurturing rural institutions. Making them, train them to own and improve themselves with the changing circumstances. Engage rural people and communities to make them understand the phenomenon that they are owners of assets and resources and maintain them in all respects. Make them understand to stand up, build up and shine together. Teach them organizational know-how with basic accountancy skills. Identify them as a Team as well as Champions. It will not help save us billions but the nation. Let us make them proud partners of national economic development. Otherwise, the time will pass but things will remain in the darkness. We have to redefine our roles as well. The federal and provincial governments are prone not to devolve because of an inherent fear that things will go out of their hands. My question is what would happen if the things were slipped from our hands? ‘Nowhere’ is the extreme possibility!