Fearlessly Foreign

In 15 years, the highway township of Chanderkot played host for hundreds of engineers from diverse nationalities. With the project being handed over to the owners, the engineers will fly home with interesting memories of their stay in a dusky, noisy place that lacked the Jammu or Srinagar like tensions, reports R S Gull

Voith engineers busy configuring the power house systems in September 2015.
Voith engineers busy configuring the power house systems in September 2015.

Currently on his second stint, Juregen Berndt is working in Baglihar for many years now. Hailing from Germany, Berndt is Chief Contracts Planning and Control Engineer of the Lahmeyer International Gmbh (LI), the SPDC’s consultant for Baglihar.

“I was already in Sudan,” Berndt said, when asked about his first reaction when LI posted him in J&K. “I knew there was some conflict in Kashmir but I was not really afraid because, you know, it (tension) is everywhere, you go to Afghanistan or to Pakistan..”

Berndt’s architect wife flies all the way from Germany for holidaying with him. If they have enough time, they drive to Srinagar and its picnic spots. Last week, his children were in Chanderkote. “There are no worries as it has remained peaceful and nice,” Berndt insists. “I loved my stay and I do not have any terrible memories.”

Foreign experts working on Baglihar, state’s first ever project of this size, may not be aware of the tensions that the host government had. There were bad precedents set already and every time a foreigner had to think of flying to J&K, these instances would come as handy discouragements.

India’s hydropower giant NHPC’s two major projects in J&K were seriously hit by the situation. When it started negotiating the contract with Swedish developer in 1988 for Uri-I, the situation was gradually getting out of hand in Srinagar. As the work started and 200 foreigners were leading nearly 4000 local skilled workforce in the mountain, not far away from the highly active Line of Control (LoC), members of militant group Muslim Janbaaz Force (MJF) kidnapped two of their engineers on March 31, 1991. This was the first sensational kidnapping of foreigners from Kashmir.

Engineers Jan Ole Loman and Johan Jansson were apparently on a skiing trip to Gulmarg when militants intercepted them somewhere in between. In fact one of them was with his wife and daughter. They also were taken towards Beerwa. The two females were set free almost the same day but the two engineers were retained for 97 days. Their release followed intense negotiations between the government – that was under pressure from Sweden, and the militants through local respectable.

In post haste after the kidnapping, the Uri Civil consortium led by Swedish ABB, flew its engineers out of Kashmir resulting in complete halt of work from April 1991 to November 1991. The engineers were set free on July 6, 1991, reportedly after the militants took a good ransom. Work resumed on December 1, 1991 after adequate security arrangements were put in place by NHPC. Apart from deploying CISF to guard the project, the NHPC started a helicopter service for transportation of the expatriates between Srinagar and Uri, besides ensuring adequate accommodation for the foreign staff within the boundaries of the project.

As the NHPC was trying to convince ABB for resuming work, there was another kidnapping. This time it was a French engineer Antonio De Silva who was kidnapped by al-Fateh militants from Banjwar near Kishtwar on October 14, 1991. He was working for the French consortium DSB implementing the Dul-Hasti power project for the NHPC. Another round of intense negotiations started but did not help. Two months later, however, the engineer reported to police in south Kashmir. On January13, 1992, he had escaped from his captors while they were asleep.

But it did not help the staff of the fear-stricken French consortium to resume work. They were already facing severe tensions for confronting a bad geology and had lost one Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM). They left the site within days and never resumed work despite a series of assurances that Paris gave to Delhi, the last in December 1994. Finally, NHPC inked a fresh agreement with Jai Prakash Industries and completed the project. Owing to a series of time and cost overruns, Dul Hasti generates the most expensive hydropower energy in India.

These two incidents dictated the security response at Baglihar. “We were asked to be always sensitive towards the foreigners,” one middle rung police officer confided. “If you go around in their housing colonies, you would see a different security set up in place, your entry and exit will be recorded.” Even the SPDC officials reveal that the best accommodation that was available at Chanderkote was given to the foreigners simply because they have a different life-style and they had to be adequately secured.

Lahmeyer engineers with Baglihar Chief Engineer.
Lahmeyer engineers with Baglihar Chief Engineer.

But not a single soul from the expatriates says they ever thought of insecurity. “We knew we are better placed and our worries were different, the challenges that the sites was throwing up, sometimes because of bad geology and sometimes because of labour unrest,” admitted a foreign engineer, not authorized to talk on record. “But to be honest there are not bad memories that I will take home.”

“Given the geographical, environmental and political constraints, it was an ambitious target to commission the units in 2015,” says D P Singh, the Voith Onshore Project Manager, the EMC contractor. “But we managed the successful commissioning with excellent coordination between the companies involved and close interaction with the civil construction company.” Voith’s job was pretty complicated and it had to involve technical experts of several nationalities including India, Germany, Austria, Brazil, Croatia, Norway, South Korea and South East Asian countries. It had to coordinate with as many as 22 to 30 sub-contractors in which coordination was a key element. “We collaborated in seamless manner and achieved the success,” Singh adds.

Various-Company-headsVoith, a Voith & Siemens Company, General Site Manager Roland Schoass is usually busy with computers in his impressive office in the ‘Siemens Colony’, coordinating with his on-site engineers and the suppliers of equipments from across the world. “I never had worries of the situation,” Schoass said. “The real worry always was that we must have right thing at right place at the right time.” At some point of time, he would work with as many as 400 skilled people across diverse nationalities. “Eventually, it was the team spirit that made us win.”

Berndt remembers that labour unrest was painful especially when the civil contractor retrenched a few thousand people after the job was over. He regretted the lack of skill in a host of “trained” staff. “We had on-site battles on issues, sometimes with the civil contractors and mostly with the electro-mechanical people but eventually we won in making this happen,” a smiling Schoass says while looking back at his interactions with other companies. “Sometimes, fighting would begin for every next step.”

Gaurav Mengi of LI has been there for more than a decade and is literally the historian of the project. Any company or a subcontractor needs any details, only Mengi knows the answers. “I loved my job,” Mengi says. “I will cherish the years I spent in this village.”

Jai Prakash Associates (JP), the civil contractor has perhaps few persons who have been witness to the ups and down of the project. One is V Sethi, the project manager, who has been part of the JP group since 1966 when he resigned as an engineer in J&K government. Another is U S Rajvanshi, the project’s Technical Consultant. As the two old men talk about the implementation of the project, their facial expressions change with the different situations they discuss.

“While working here, we improved certain systems already in place like shotcrete,” says Rajvanshi. “We faced some peculiar situation that forced all of us to think and create local solutions, which are now the text books issue.” Since 1970s, shotcrete was wet but at Baglihar even dry method was effectively used.

Given the geology of the place, dam had to be set up where it was, adds Rajvanshi. “The dam is only 800 meters from the Muree thrust and any change in its location would pose questions,” he said. “To help the dam sustain an earthquake, it needed lot of strength and that is where we had to put in more efforts and be slightly innovative.”

“Our dam can withstand an earthquake up to 10 on the rector scale,” said Chief Engineer (electrical) P R Angurala. “The dam is so strong that it manages 24 crore bars of pressure.” An LPG-filled cylinder has 2 bar pressure!

Abdul Wahid is the Chief Engineer of the project, tenth since the foundation was laid. Basically from Drass, he has overseen most of the civil constructions that have taken place in Kargil before moving to Baglihar. “Stage-II has remained completely incident free,” Wahid says. “This was possibly because we had learnt many lessons from the Stag-I.”

Reviewing the progress: Engineers from LI, Voith and SPDC on the eve of completion of Stage-II.
Reviewing the progress: Engineers from LI, Voith and SPDC on the eve of completion of Stage-II.

Witness to various engineering challenges, Wahid is popular with all the contractors and their staff. “We may have next posting in different parts of the world,” he tells LI engineers at their office. “But what we will never forget is the coffee and the football.”

Vital contribution to the making and running of the project has come from the ground workers. “In 2011 snowfall, we were disconnected from the rest of the world on Darmund heights for five days and it reached a situation that we would warm the dry rice and eat,” one young engineer said. “My colleagues were trapped in the power house for 36 hours without water and meals but the station never stopped functioning.”

The young engineers working with the SPDC have interesting anecdotes of keeping the station working. Once, when the valves in Unit-III malfunctioned, powerhouse was filled with water. “We restored it within next 24 hours and worked non-stop,” another young engineer said. The young lots of SPDC engineers are very popular with the foreign experts from LI and Voith because they pick up things quite fast.

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