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Dam trapped in a tragedy of errors

Indian Express
May 1, 1998

You could call this the height of error. One of the largest hydro-electric projects of the country is stuck for the last four years because Government agencies made crucial errors while calculating the height of the dam.

When a road, bridge or a dam is built, nobody questions the accuracy of maps and measurements done by Government surveyors. And when building a power plant, few question the figures offered by an experienced electricity board. But it was the mistakes made by such organisations which have brought the 1500 MW Nathpa Jhakri Power Project near Shimla near closure. After 13 years spent in getting various clearances and approvals, its viability will now be determined by the speed at which the Union Ministry of Power, the Himachal Government and Central Electricity Authority (CEA) can decide on the immediate issue of the final height of the dam.

When the Nathpa Jhakri Power Corporation started executing the civil contractors for building the dam in 1994, it discovered that there was a measurement error of two metres. The actual depth of the site where the wall was to be built was two metres below the actual figure given. The Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board which is a joint venture partner in NJPC did its own bit adding a calculation error of two meters in the height of the dam to be built. As a result, the dam is going be four metres shorter than the original figure of 60.5 metres. As a result of these horrendous errors, the maximum power which could be produced by the dam has almost halved.

In the original plan, the dam was expected to produce three hours of peaking power which means that it would generate the maximum power possible for three hours running. But now it will be able to generate peaking power of only 1.6 hours in the morning and the evening. Also the cost of the project which is part funded by the World Bank has risen from Rs 1,678 crore (at 1988 prices) to Rs 4,337 crore in 1993 (when revised estimates were made) to a current figure of Rs 7,179crore (assuming that the dam gets on with its work and is commissioned by 2001). The obvious solution to this problem was to raise the height of the dam. But the NJPC ran into another problem on this front. A few km upstream on the the Sutlej river, the HPSEB has an 120 MW dam at Bhaba. The HP Government said that if the height of NJPC’s dam is raised, the water from the resulting reservoir would choke the flow of the water from Bhaba.

Since then the Government of HP has refused to budge an inch, while the Government of India and NJPC have been trying to resolve the issue. Meanwhile, the World Bank has been putting pressure on the Power Ministry to expedite the project. WB has lent $ 437 million (at 1989 prices) to the project. The Government of India sought and received an extension of the World Bank loan till end of this year. The only condition is that the clearance from the public investment board on the revised costs be taken by October this year. The Power Ministry and the CEA are now going to make a decision now on the height of the dam. Ministry sources say that the decision will be taken by May. Sources close to the projects say that any further delay could well kill the project. The World Bank could also get fed up and pull out. They say that reduced peaking power will not hurt the viability of the project and the cost of power will work out to Rs 2.10 per unit, lower than comparable projects.

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