Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajiks Incandescent Over Light Bulb Ban

Energy-saving bulbs are too expensive for most people, and should never have been imposed by decree, say critics of new scheme.
By Lola Olimova
Critics have poured scorn on a government plan to solve Tajikistan’s chronic energy shortages by banning conventional light bulbs.

Importing the standard incandescent bulbs became illegal on October 1, with the aim of phasing in energy-saving lamps by the end of the year. The changeover is part of an energy conservation strategy which has the backing of President Imomali Rahmon.

Despite an extensive government media campaign, there has been little public enthusiasm for the initiative.

Many complain that it is simply another in a long line of decrees that interfere needlessly with people’s private lives. Previous examples include forbidding public servants to get gold teeth and banning students from wearing miniskirts or jeans.

University lecturer Roza Hamidullina said the energy-saving drive was just another intrusive initiative, and put her off purchasing the new bulbs.

Recalling two recent decrees introducing a dress code for university teachers and making it compulsory to use the Tajik language rather than Russian in state institutions, she said, “We are told how to dress, not to have gold teeth, what language to speak and now what bulbs to use at home. Just let them try to make me do it.”

Tajikistan, with a population of seven million, suffers from acute energy shortages every winter. Its main energy source is hydroelectricity, but generation has failed to keep pace with demand, which experts estimate has risen by 50 per cent over the last decade.

A number of major new dam schemes have yet to reach completion, and water levels appear to be falling generally. It is in Tajikistan’s interest to fill up its reservoirs over the summer and autumn months to increase generating capacity in winter, when demand for power is highest, but the country is under pressure from neighbours like Uzbekistan to release the water earlier so that it reaches them when they need it most to keep their fields irrigated.

Tajikistan has few sources of fuel, so it has to import oil and natural gas from other Central Asian states, which charge prices it is less and less able to afford, resulting in periodic outages in the gas supply. That places an additional burden on the Tajik electricity grid, as people in urban areas do much of their heating and cooking by electricity in the absence of other fuels. In the countryside, people are at least able to gather firewood and dried manure to burn.

For the last ten years, the Tajik authorities have imposed restrictions on the electricity supply from October to May. In some parts of the country, these power cuts last for much of the day.

Officials are confidently predicting that the switch to more efficient lighting will result in a sevenfold reduction in electricity use. Experts and consumers alike remain deeply sceptical that the change will do anything to alleviate the chronic shortfall in electricity generation.

A former energy-sector worker who gave his name as Akbarali told IWPR that the campaign would be a waste of money.

“A lot of efforts are being expended on producing leaflets, putting up banners in the street, and advertising on billboards and on radio and TV,” he said. “So much money is being spent, and all for nothing. This is not necessarily going to lead to energy-saving.”

Akbarali explained that any benefits from energy-saving would be swamped by the surge in domestic consumption that happens whenever the power comes on.

“When it’s on for several hours, everyone uses all the electrical devices they’ve got,” he said.

Opposition politician and political analyst Shokirjon Hakimov argues that the campaign to use low-energy bulbs ignores the realities of life in a country that is the poorest in Central Asia.

“Most Tajik families have a very low standard of living, and not everyone can afford these bulbs,” he said.

The average monthly wage in Tajikistan is worth 80 US dollars, putting energy-saving bulbs of better quality out of reach, as they sell at around ten dollars each.

Cheaper versions are available from one dollar upwards, but people say they are of dubious quality, do not give off much light and only last a short time. The normal incandescent bulbs cost between 30 and 60 cents.

Khusrav, a market trader in the capital Dushanbe, refuses to sell the energy-saving bulbs.

“I’ve heard they’re bad for your health, particularly your eyesight,” he said. “And ordinary people don’t want to throw their money away.”

Nazira, an 85-year-old grandmother, said that on her pension of 24 dollars a month she would not even consider replacing her current light bulbs.

“We lived 80 years without energy-saving bulbs and we can going on doing so. Let those who have the money buy them. I’m already saving on everything I can,” she said.

Hakimov criticised the government for trying to engineer change by decree.

“In democratic countries, the authorities make recommendations rather than banning things. They organise awareness campaigns and give consumers a choice so that they can make decisions depending on their income,” he said. “In Central Asian countries, where there’s no democracy and human rights are violated, they decree that people should purchase these light bulbs. That goes against the principles of a market economy and against the protection of consumer rights.”

The government intends to provide 240,000 of the poorest families with energy saving bulbs free of charge. However, this will be a one-off action, and 35-year-old mother of six Zulfia says that when her free bulbs burn out, she will go back to the conventional ones.

“It’s a good thing I’ve bought a few in reserve,” she added.

Lola Olimova is IWPR editor for Tajikistan; Nafisa Pisaredjeva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Dushanbe.

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