Works are in full swing both inside and outside to meet the deadline
COVER STORY: March 31. A loud roar of machine interrupts Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay’s speech to the people gathered for the foundation concreting of Punatsangchhu-II Hydroelectric Project’s dam.
“That’s the sound of the machines at work,” says Lyonchoen, smiling. Bhutan and India has celebrated many such milestones over the years.
Twenty-seven-year-old Nitigyesh Shakar, an electrician, spends much of his time working inside the tunnels at PHPA II, fixing the power lines. The subterranean world where Nitigyesh Shakar works is deep, dark and humid. It is dangerous.
Punatsangchhu- I and II have more than 42 tunnels together. From outside, the hill looks bare. But the tunnels inside are big enough to for two cars to race at the same time.
At the dam construction site, there are more than 5,000 workers, busy doing their individual part. It is a dizzying sight.
After the dams are ready, water will be trapped in it and then channeled to the four power intakes. From there the water will enter the four desiliting chambers that will separate silt and sediments from water. Water enters the headrace tunnel that conducts water to the powerhouse complex. In the powerhouse complex, the water enters the surge shaft and butterfly valve chamber and then into the pressures shafts and penstocks and finally into the turbines which rotates and generates electricity.
The used water exits through the downstream surge chamber and the tailrace tunnel into the natural course of the river.
The principle applies to both the projects and the only difference is the design of the surge shaft with an underground dome type in PHEP-I and open to sky in PHEP-II.
Nitigyesh is among the more than 9,000 workers working inside and outside the mountain along the left and right banks of the Punatsangchhu River, building the two mega projects. There are drillers, compressors, electricians, dam workers, security guards, drivers, blast-conductors, work supervisors, technicians, assistants, engineers and other officials who keep the project alive for 24 hours seven days a week on shift routine. Workers inside the tunnel hardly break for a conversation or sit to rest for a while.
From Falakata, Nitigyesh has worked with hydroelectric projects in Sikkim. He earns about Nu 14,000 and does some extra hours for income. Nitigyesh works for 12 hours a day. His shift starts at 8am and ends at 8pm. He enters the dimly lit tunnels wearing safety helmet, knee-high boots, carrying bunches of wire through din and darkness. But he likes working in such environment.
However, for Suresh, who works at dam site, despite heat, dust and noise, he prefers working outside in open space. Inside or outside, there are risks. Boulders come rolling.
“I like working in Bhutan. We have good labour camp, clean water and free health facilities. And the weather is good,” said Suresh. “I can save enough to support my family.”
Since machines and heavy vehicles do majority of the works, accidents do happen frequently. Contractors and project officers are required to have safety officials at various locations of the construction to take care of occupational health and safety aspects of the workers.
The project workers are entitled for life insurance.
Most of the workers are from Falakata, Calcutta, Siliguri, Jalpaiguri, New Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh in India.
An Indian worker who does night shift said that working environment is like in a dream. Night shift is more challenging. “We feel sleepy and also most of the accidents occur at night. But the job pays well.”
Pema Yangzom, a site supervisor at PHPA II, said that workload is heavy at the site. But female workers are respected. As the lone woman working alongside men inside Adit-I tunnel, she has not faced any harassment issue so far. “We have total blackout inside the tunnel sometimes. I don’t have to worry being the only woman. Male colleagues treat me well.”
Pema’s shift starts from 6am in the morning to 2pm. The project’s site supervisors and engineers work in three-shifts a day. The workers employed by the contractors stay in the labour camps, while those with the project get housing allowances and stay in Bajo, Lobesa and Punakha. The project has a bus service for the employees.
Project officials said the power system master plan 1993 had identified seventeen hydropower projects with total capacity of 8,035 MW along the Punatsangchhu basin. Only Punatsangchhu I and II were selected to the total 10,000MW by 2020 hydropower dream.
Punatsangchhu-I faced a major problem in 2013 due to movement on the right bank at the dam complex, and just recently, Punatsangchhu-II faced some geological problems on the left bank of the dam complex. Authorities are hopeful that completion of projects will be one time. The 1,200MW PHPA-I is expected to be complete by 2018 November and the 1,020MW PHPA II is expected to be complete by 2018.
By Dawa Gyelmo, Wangdue