Project progressing well amid the pandemic

Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue

Bhutanese, especially the youth have responded to what the economic affairs minister, Loknath Sharma called, “call of the nation,” as hundreds of expatriate workers left from the Punatsangchhu-II hydroelectric project (PII) jeopardising the progress of the project.

Until October 10, nearly 2,000 individuals from across the country registered with the help desk set up by the PII management.

On October 10, as part of the first batch 218 individuals were taken to the PII site for briefing and site familiarisation tour. There were more than 70 women in the group.

In total, the management plans to recruit at least 700 Bhutanese workers to replace the Indian workers who have left for home.  While the PII management is facilitating the recruitment process, the employed will be under the PII contractor company Jaiprakash Associates Limited (Jaypee Group).

Most of those who registered are school-dropouts, a few are those who worked outside Bhutan and others are fresh graduates of Technical Training Institutes (TTI).    

For Tashi Wangchuk, working at PII is a stepping-stone to a company he wishes to work in future. Tashi Wangchuk, 20, said that he had applied for work at the Druk Green Power Corporation. However, without much experience in the hydroelectric projects he couldn’t get the job. “So I want to gain some experience in the tunnel for the job I want.”

For others, this is an opportunity to earn an income during the pandemic.

Karma Wangchuk, 19, said that he lost his job about two months ago amid the pandemic. “Because my work was heavy even in the past job, I can do it. I have decided to work after visiting the site.”

The Bhutanese workforce also comes as a relief to Jaypee Group as local workers would mean less expenditure on work permits and the mandatory quarantine facilities the Indian workers have to go through.

“If we have manpower here, we don’t have to bring from India. We welcome the nationals,” Jaypee Group’s project manager KK Sood said.

Jaypee Group has around 1,900 workers today. This is a drop from 3,200 before the pandemic.

As of September, 1,351 Indian workers left for home. Additional 300 had also submitted their applications to leave. The project is today in need of around 2,700 workers. Earlier, 268 vacancies were also announced by the management. Although more than 150 applications were received, only 22 joined after the site visit.

PII Joint Managing Director (JMD) Thinley Dorji said that retaining the workers was a challenge. He added that following up on that, a new batch of workers would be recruited accordingly.

Chaired by the economic affairs minister Loknath Sharma, discussions to improve mess and accommodation facilities proceeded to make the project work more suitable for Bhutanese workers. Incentives were also discussed.


Accommodation and mess

On October 10, the male recruits were sent to the dam and powerhouse sites. Female workers are today at the Phateykha Primary School structure.

KK Sood said that the structures near the PII powerhouse were barricaded, broken windows were being replaced and the toilet facilities were being improved. He added that until a few days ago, he wasn’t aware that female workers were also being recruited for the work. “So far we have not included ladies in the site but we don’t want to discourage them if they are competent and willing to work.”

Lack of Bhutanese food in the menu at work mess was also recognised as a challenge.

KK Sood said that he had not received any request to include Bhutanese menu.

However, the workers can choose to cook their own meals. The contractor company today provides subsidised meals to workers. Monthly, Nu 1,000 is deducted for food.


Payment and benefits

The PII follows 12-hour night and day working systems. Shifts are changed every 15 days. At PII, a helper/unskilled worker earns Nu 13,000 a month. A semi-skilled worker makes more than Nu 14,000 and a skilled person more than Nu 17,000.

Today, cash incentives of a maximum of Nu 4,000 are also being discussed.

MD Amresh Kumar said that the Bhutanese recruits would undergo a month-long on-job training to skill them. “The incentive is subject to their attendance at work. We will consider providing the incentives from the first month.”

While Jaypee Group workers will provide the training, buddies/mentors would also be assigned by the PII management to look after the concerns and help new recruits.

The workers receive two days rest day in a month and are eligible to 28 days leave in a year. After six months, five percent provident fund deductions are also introduced.

At the briefing session on October 10, Jaypee Group and the PII management officials talked about promising career opportunities. KK Sood said that there were opportunities to work at other project sites. “We are here for 23 years. We have been given some rectification work at Kurichu dam. We are the lowest bidder at Kholongchu project; you have a lot of scope to work with us and rise in your career.”


PII progress amid the pandemic

Despite the shortage of workers, works have progressed well at PII. Apart from two-weeks national lockdown, the project didn’t stop work for a single day.

MD Amresh Kumar said that stopping work for a single day would incur Nu 65 million (M) loss in interest during construction, claims to the contractors, establishment cost, other recurring cost, and cost of generation (generation loss) among others.

“Many projects stopped their work. Maybe our speed slowed, and the supply challenges were there but we maintained our progress,” MD Amresh Kumar said.

The PII management also recognised concreting of the fallen debris in the downstream surge gallery (DSSG) as PII’s major achievements.

A collapse in the DSSG in March 2016 had affected the project works.

“In 2016 and 2017 no one knew how to solve the issue. But we approached the best geo-technical specialist of the world. We now converted both sites of the fallen debris to concrete,” MD Amresh Kumar said.

“Give us support for another one and half year and we will deliver the project to you.”