MB Subba

The government is trying to minimise the impact of the second nationwide lockdown as the number of Covid-19 cases continues to increase.

Among the major activities affected is the construction of hydropower projects. The second lockdown has come at a time when hundreds of expatriate workers have returned home.

However, Economic Affairs Minister Loknath Sharma said that the government was working in such as way that works at hydropower projects can go on. He said that the construction works would continue to take place in 50 to 60 percent of their capacity.

Major hydropower projects where construction works are ongoing are Punatshangchu I and II in Wangdue, and Nikachhu in Trongsa. The economic affairs minister said that a month’s delay in construction of hydropower projects would cost the government in millions of ngultrums.

Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said the government was fortunate that no Covid-19 case was detected in any of the hydropower projects. “In fact, I was worried that the first Covid-19 case might emerge from one of the projects.”

A single case in one of the projects, he said, could affect thousands of workers who work in clusters, and halt the construction work. He said that a project had about 1,000 to 3,000 workers.

One of the challenges facing the projects is the shortage of workers as many Indian workers have returned. Lyonpo said that the government had no choice but to continue to import workers with critical skills.

“We cannot afford to delay the construction of hydropower projects. And we are working hard to minimise the delay that is inevitable,” Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said.

The government, he said, was trying to facilitate shipment of goods to the projects by following proper Covid-19 protocols.

Lyonpo said that workers would remain within the containment zone. The project employees who live away from projects, he said, were those at supervisory levels and above and that they could work remotely.

Lockdown effect on budget plans 

The second lockdown has come as a blow to the government’s strategy to offset the impact of the Covid-19 on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) loss by ramping up public spending.

The budget 2020-21 states that the government would accelerate the implementation of the plans by front-loading the activities. The government has allocated 31 percent of the 12th Plan’s capital outlay in the current fiscal year.

However, underutilisation of the allocated budget for is expected to be a major concern.

According to the finance ministry’s budget performance report for the first quarter of the fiscal year 2020-21, the capital budget for the quarter is Nu 37.841 billion (B). But only about Nu 2B, which is 6 percent of the allocated budget, has been used.

As per the past trends, the capital budget utilisation for the first quarter is approximately 10 percent on account of preparatory works and procurement process, according to the budget performance report.

Finance Minister Namgay Tshering in the recently concluded Parliament expressed concerns about the possibilities of the allocated capital budget being left underutilised.

However, development activities at the local government level are not affected severely. Local leaders said that gewog administrations were allowed to continue with ongoing activities such as construction of farm roads and rural water supply schemes.

Samtse Dzongkhag Tshogdu chairperson, Nima Dukpa, said that gewog would monitor the work. “The workers have to follow the Covid-19 protocols.”

The economic affairs minister said that it would depend on dzongkhag taskforce to decide what development activities should he allowed to continue depending on the level of risks.