Kholongchhu: A great achievement

As we prepare for another weekend, it was a hectic, but very important week, for Bhutanese when we look back. We observed the birth anniversary of Guru Rinpoche, we celebrated the naming of Second Royal Child, Gyalsey Ugyen Wangchuck and the government launched its Economic Contingency Plan with the Build Bhutan Project becoming the talk of the town.

The week started with an important event on Monday. The government and the Kholongchhu Hydro Energy Limited (KHEL) signed the concessional agreement. It is the first joint venture (JV) hydropower project between Bhutan and India. In other words, it was another milestone in the Bhutan-India relations.

The foreign minister and minister for external affairs, India, Dr S Jaishankar attended the signing with the latter joining through a videoconference. This all happened when both countries were trying to contain the spread of Covid-19 and all priorities are directed to the pandemic. The signing, therefore, speaks volumes of the good relation the two countries enjoy where cooperation in hydropower has become the epitome of mutually beneficial relationship.

Political leaders, quite often, do not go beyond political niceties. The difference in the case of Bhutan-India cooperation, proven time and again, is that it is not rhetoric. Kholongchhu is a testimony. There had been differences, understandably given that such a huge bilateral agreement is a product of careful and mutually beneficial negotiations.

At a time when critics and our own people are becoming skeptical of building mega hydropower projects because of unseen natural and geographical challenges delaying and adding costs, the headway given to the 600MW Kholongchhu project with the signing comes as a great relief.

While electricity from Kholongchhu would help the power deficit in India, this is one project that many Bhutanese had been waiting for. Six years ago, when KHEL started digging after laying the foundation stone by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it raised the hopes of the people of eastern Bhutan. Most hydropower projects are concentrated in western Bhutan. Kholongchhu was seen as the harbinger of development in eastern Bhutan. It was the hope of making regional balanced development a reality.

With the big hurdle cleared, KHEL could start work on its tunnels, dam and powerhouse. This would mean a frenzy of construction activity. And this means direct benefits to the local economy. There are many direct and indirect economic opportunities of a hydropower project. It is not only the contractors and private sector that would benefit from ancillary works.

Around 6,000 people are estimated to be employed in the project. About 30 percent of the total budget would be pumped in the local economy.  Beyond the people of Sharchog Khorlo Tsip Gye (eight great clans of eastern region), the project financed on a debt and equity portion, could mean opportunities for our financial institutions, insurance companies and even telcos. If managed properly, the benefits will trickle down to the locals like farmers who could find ready markets for the farm produce.

The inter-governmental agreement for Kholongchhu was signed in April 2015. We are seeing the headway today. We can surmise that the signing didn’t coincide with the current government. A lot of negotiations had happened in the last one and half years with the government, elected on the promise of bridging the gap, following up on the concessional agreement with full dedication.

2025, the expected commissioning year is five years away. But to get it going is itself a big achievement for the government and the people of eastern Bhutan.

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