Project progressing well, despite setback from Covid-19: management

Phurpa Lhamo | Wangdue

The Punatsangchhu I hydroelectric project (PHPA I) may be delayed for years, but with the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the project, there are some positive developments at the project.

With the lockdown in India and borders sealed, the PHPA I management resorted to recruiting Bhutanese nationals to fill the vacancies and using materials from home country such as cement and steel.

The immediate impact has been on the project workforce, which mostly came from India. There are 1,064 foreign workers at the site of PHPA I, which includes 336 unskilled labourers. A couple of weeks ago, the project also announced vacancies for over 140 labourers who were initially planned to come from foreign countries. “We have received a good response so far,” said PHPA I joint managing director (JMD) Karma Tshewang.

The project’s managing director, NC Bansal said additional manpower and machine, which were to come from India is not possible with the lockdown extended. He added that foreign employees leave for home every four to five months of work in Bhutan. However, currently employees weren’t able to leave and replacements weren’t able to enter Bhutan. “The overall impact is minimum as of now but their morale is down.” 

The project is also counseling the Indian workers who were showing signs of distress.

Critical materials, which include permanent equipment that needs to be installed in the powerhouse, are imported with both governments taking lead in bringing the items to Bhutan.

“Initially, import was affected. However, now with the support from the government and the government of India through the Indian Embassy, we are able to bring critical items required at the project,” said the Managing Director. “In PHPA I, by and large all equipment are with us.”

Meanwhile, since construction began in 2008, about 86.86 percent of work at the PI has been completed as of April this year, according to project officials.

They said that the entire headrace tunnel and the 400kV transmission line work has been completed. The transmission line is currently being used for evacuation of Mangdechhu Power to India.

The powerhouse civil work and electromechanical work is also nearing completion with over 94 percent of work complete.

With regard to the dam, the works of cofferdam, diversion tunnels, desilting chambers and major excavation of dam are also completed. The overall completion of dam work is 69.87 percent. However, basic work such as concreting the dam remains.

The project is also working to find a solution to the critical landslide area on the left bank of the dam.

NC Bansal said that the project’s consultant had filed a report, which was also shared with the Bhutanese officials. “We needed a third party opinion, which has been received. Now there is a small difference of opinion and that will be resolved immediately.”

While work is expected to complete by March 2025, the management said they are working to bring the completion year to 2024.

Amid Covid-19 pandemic, the project has also put in measures to ensure safety at workplace. According to JMD Karma Tshewang, PI management had adopted a preparedness plan.

He added that workers who were required to work in groups were allowed to work from home, labourer’s dormitory were guarded, non-essential travel were avoided, food stocks to last three months have also been stocked and a flu centre has been set up by the project management.

As for the workers at PI site, many worked at different sites and physical distancing wasn’t an issue, said JMD Karma Tshewang.