Hydropower projects shaky due to exodus of Indian laborers

Even as the country’s economy reels from the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the so-called highest revenue grosser, hydropower is on the verge of a crisis, with an exodus of Indian workers.

The Punatsangchhu II project has seen overall expat strength drop from about 4,500 to 1,900. The actual situation is that there are less than 500 workers available to undertake laborious work against a requirement of 2700 while the Punatsangchhu project I is also faced with similar labor shortage problems with some 650 expat workers at site presently, having had to repatriate over 350 in just the last couple of months.

Meanwhile, the Nikachhu project has also not fared that well with over 420 expat workers having left the project site since the start of the COVID-19 situation. With the Deepawali and Puja festivals in India, many more are likely to leave.

Other issues dogging the sector are supply chain disruptions in the supply of construction materials and access to spares and inventories for machineries and equipment from India and other countries and restriction on movement of experts for specialized works.

An official from the Druk Green Power Corporation (DGPC) said replacement workers are difficult to arrange under the present COVID-19 situation and the resultant restrictions. “Every effort is being made to address the labor shortage problem, which will ultimately lead to time and cost overruns.”

To address the situation, Nikachhu started a little earlier in trying to recruit Bhutanese youth and it has over 520 Bhutanese workers at the different project sites at the moment. “This has been made possible through the positive initiatives taken by the management and working closely with the contractors. The induction of CDCL to work on one of the faces of the head race tunnel definitely encouraged the Bhutanese youth a more comfortable feeling of working in the underground caverns,” said the official.

Meanwhile, Punatshangchhu I and II started to lose expat workers more recently and both projects are working on how to encourage more Bhutanese youth to join the workforce at their project sites through a variety of initiatives including appropriate training for the interested youth so that they can deliver on the tasks at hand.

The official noted that in the long term, the COVID-19 pandemic situation does present an opportunity to bring in higher levels of Bhutanese participation and enable the projects to benefit the local communities more. “Without the active involvement of the managements and project authorities to recruit more Bhutanese youth, providing them with the required training and engaging and guiding them at the work sites, it might be difficult to turn the projects around from their present situation where shortage of workers is bringing almost every work front to almost a standstill.”

The official said that from the very beginning, Druk Holding & Investments prepared all DHI companies to deal with the COVID-19 situation and detailed operating procedures were put in place – from the planning for man and materials including ensuring availability of spares and inventories – to how to deal with COVID-19 transmission situation in the power houses. “Operation and maintenance (O and M) teams were segregated and put in isolation areas away from the rest of the communities. The government supported these initiatives including rapid tests for the isolated O&M employees. These arrangements are continuing and the SOPs are being strictly implemented.”

He added that as a result while the usual day to day operation problems continue and there has been some instance of transmission line outages, these exigencies were handled in an efficient and timely manner and therefore generation from the power plants and transmission for export has not been impacted as of date.

“However, whether there is COVID or no COVID, electricity is an essential commodity and the demand continues to be there. Domestic demand did not fall as expected with the government working very hard with the private sector to keep the industries operating. More importantly, India continues to import all surplus power from Bhutan although there has been a reduction in demand in electricity in India.”

He added that unlike other commodities, electricity flow through the wires and COVID-19 restriction was never a problem as far as transactions in electricity is concerned. “Considering the early rains, it is expected that the hydropower sector will actually see an increase in its revenues during the year.”

For the period March to August 2020, DGPC’s power plants of Tala, Chhukha, Basochhu and Kurichhu earned INR 8,884.853 mn from export of surplus power to India and another Nu. 1,458.487 mn from sales to BPC for the domestic market.

In addition to this, the Mangdechhu project earned INR 8,388.125 mn in exports to India and another Nu. 91.347 mn in sales to BPC for the domestic market.

Dagachhu project also generated some Nu. 1,209 mn in revenues from January till September 2020.

“Considering the better expected rainfalls, the revenues accruing from all the power plants are expected to exceed the 2019 achievements.”

Chencho Dema from Thimphu