Cement out of the bag

Published: Friday 15 August 2008

-- Urgent need to re-examine quality assurance of dams in the northeast

On May 10, the Sangai Express, a local daily from Imphal, reported that parts of the Thoubal multipurpose project had developed cracks. Taking note of the apparent lack of quality construction, Thounaojam Shyamkumar, deputy speaker in the state assembly, said that the dam posed a threat and authorities concerned should explain the cracks.

A team of the state's irrigation and flood control department was quick to respond. There is no threat, the team of engineers said. The "surface cracks" developed when digging the foundation of retaining walls for the spillway and could be repaired using cement. Activists of course do not buy the explanation.Demanding a complete review of the project, Jitehn Yumnam, secretary of Citizens Concerned for Dams and Development, a coalition of civil society organizations in the northeast, said cracks had appeared even where slope-protection was done, with grasses growing all over the surface. It reveals how seriously soil tests were carried out, or for that matter, the construction work, Yumnam contended.

More recently, a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (cag)

opens up a convoluted tale of how much attention is given to quality while constructing dams. The report states that the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (neepco) had suffered losses of over Rs 80 lakh because it had failed to transport 80,000 cement bags to its stated destination, the Tuirial hydropower dam in March-May 2004 because of heavy rainfall, elections and strikes. neepco stored about 30,000 bags in Silchar and the rest in Guwahati. When the quality of the cement started deteriorating, neepco tried to dispose of the unutilized cement by inviting quotations from interested parties in July 2004. But no major construction agency came forward to take the cement. The corporation even failed to sell it to the local retail outlets by December.

neepco then constituted a committee to examine the issue of deterioration in February 2005, which submitted its report in March terming the stock obsolete. The corporation once again invited quotations for disposal of the obsolete cement in April. Although the highest price quoted for the Guwahati stock was Rs 55 per bag, the bidder withdrew his offer in June 2005 and neepco had to sell about 40,000 bags to another party, after diverting 10,000 bags to another project (Kameng hydroelectric project). The stock in Silchar was sold at Rs 20.50 per bag, after diverting 954 bags to the Tuirial hydroelectric project.

The word is obsolete
The audit reveals, with horrifying precision, how neepco diverted substantial part of the cement stock, about one-third (10,594 bags) of what it had utilized (38,123 bags) on Tuirial during construction season in 2004 to dam sites where construction was in progress, despite knowing that it was obsolete. The auditors should have checked what "quality assurance" neepco provided by diverting the bags to other dam sites.

The cag report on Manipur has also unearthed how the contractor of the Thoubal multipurpose project, Ansal Properties and Infrastructure, was extended undue favour by the irrigation and flood control department. The department failed to recover Rs 1.80 crore paid for cost escalation from contractors. The department, while admitting the case in September 2007, had assured that the excess amount would be recovered from the contractor in 2007-08. In another development, the department has come under fresh round of criticism after a breach in the eastern canal of Khuga dam during its trial run on July 8, 2008.

Down to Earth  
Surya Sen
In light of these scathing details, the department needs to answer several questions and not brush aside the appearance of cracks casually. Also, it's about time that construction quality assurance and dam safety are given sincere attention and the state's irrigation and flood control department extends due rehabilitation entitlements to those affected, rather than extending undue favours to contractors.

Himanshu Upadhyaya is with the Environics Trust, New Delhi. He can be reached at himanshugreen@gmail.com

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