Building Uri

 Undaunted by Kashmir’s civil war, armed sieges and curfews, a group of Swedish and Indian engineers built the Uri hydropower plant in record time. A glimpse of how the Uri project team worked assiduously amidst adverse circumstances – terrorist threats, harsh weather and a tough terrain – to finish NHPC’s remarkable 480 MW project on the river Jhelum.

In the life of a hydel engineer, the average day can throw up any of the following events and emotions: nasty geological surprises leaping out of the sides of mountains, tunnels threatening to collapse like a meringue hit by a brick, harsh weather, the unbearable tedium of working in a remote region and the frustration of being separated from the family for long periods.

But breaking off work to dive into bunkers during prolonged exchanges of gunfire? Having a shell whizz past your head during an early morning constitutional? Seeing your colleagues being kidnapped by Kashmiri separatists and kept in captivity for a diabolical five months? Moving around in armed convoys? Obeying strict instructions not to step outside the project site unless you fancy getting a hole in the head before breakfast?

 “The Indian army wasn’t happy initially because our presence coincided with an upsurge in militant activity,” Ragnar Udo South Asia Regional Manager, Skanska

This was the experience of engineers working on the Uri hydro project, about 90 km from Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir and a stone’s throw from Pakistan. There was no such thing as an average day when all it took was a curfew by the Indian army to disrupt not just work but the arrival of supplies. Virtually everything about this 480 MW project was remarkable, including the fact that it was completed in seven-and-a-half years by a consortium led by the Swedish firm Skanska and NHPC. In fact, it would have been completed earlier had it not been for delays over land acquisition and the disruption caused by the political strife in the Valley.

Work began in November 1989. Skanska’s engineers were as cool as cucumbers when it came to working in a civil war zone. Of course, the cold weather (hideously painful for the goose-pimpled and shivering Tamils and Keralites) was positively tropical for them but even the raging militancy was accepted without a fuss. “We have experience of doing projects in countries with similar situations,” explains Ragnar Udo, South Asia regional manager of Skanska in Delhi. “We worked in Sri Lanka throughout the troubles and in some African countries undergoing civil war.”

 But surely it required the persuasive charm of a UN negotiator on Bosnia to get its engineers to work on Uri? “I don’t know what it is about our engineers but they had no qualms about working here. It was not difficult to persuade them. We did not offer extra all we did was offer generous holidays. After 14 weeks of work, they had 14 days off.”

The thousands of tonnes of material that was needed for building a state-of-the-art plant — whether it was steel and cement from various corners of India, sophisticated electrical equipment from Sweden or the UK or basic stuff like nails, computers, toilet paper, biscuits, ice-cream (from Nirulas) — had to be transported by road. It arrived at Jammu railway station and was carried 400 km by truck on National Highway No. 1. A 40-km stretch of the highway which fell within the project site had to be improved by Skanska and the bridges strengthened so that they could take the weight of the almost 50 ten tonne trucks which, at the height of construction, could be heard rumbling through the mountain passes all day and night.

 Much of the equipment had to be dismantled first and then reassembled at the site. When there had been snowfall, the road used to be cleared at night so that there was no hindrance to the movement of people or goods,” says V.K. Kanjlia, NHPC’s general manager at Uri.

It took a year to build the site village where the 500 or so Swedish engineers and their families would live for so many years. It was a little European enclave with heated swimming pools, tennis and squash courts, a supermarket, a bar, a dancing hall, cable television, a small hospital, heated homes with washing machines and other mod cons and an excellent kitchen serving European food in addition to all kinds of Indian food ranging from butter chicken to the more obscure varieties of dosas.

On festive occasions such as Christmas and Easter, traditional food stuffs were flown in from Sweden but otherwise everything the expats ate was Indian. Being confined in one place and being with the same people all the time inevitability meant occasional tensions and conflicts but, Udo says that the best remedy for boredom or conflicts is to keep people so occupied with work “that they don’t have time to get caught up in these things.”

Working alongside the expatriates were around 4,000 local Kashmiri labourers and 500 or so Indian engineers who came from all over the country to form a little mini-India at Uri. There was no socialising between the expatriates and the Indians save occasionally at a senior level between NHPC and Skanska executives or engineers.

Work was conducted on a war footing. One feature of the project was a total commitment by Skanska and NHPC. It was dinned into everyone at the site that, come rain or shine, work had to go on, regardless of the civil war going on around them — a war, moreover, that was at its height precisely when construction was at its peak. The Europeans worked from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and later spent time maintaining the equipment. The local Kashmiris were also picked up at 6 a.m. and taken on 19 buses to the site to work until 7 p.m.

Kanjlia and the management at NHPC believe one of the reasons for the success of Uri was the professionalism of Skanska and the unstinting support given by NHPC. “It also helped that Jammu & Kashmir was under governor’s rule at the time because it meant that no politician could interfere and thereby cause delays,” says Kanjlia.

“For instance, they might have interfered over the land acquisition or the levels of compensation, etc. Without this interference, both the centre and the state government worked in tandem.”

Kanjlia says the Swedes enjoyed a lot of goodwill among the local population, many of whom, unemployed for years, were delighted to get work that paid Rs 8,000-9,000 a month. As one NHPC official jokes, “These unemployed Kashmiris might have taken to the gun but we came along and gave them a shovel and spade instead.” NHPC itself kept its head below the parapet during every successful stage of the project for fear that too visible a presence or too much publicity over its success might irritate the trigger-happy militants and attract even greater levels of hostility.

The Indian army, struggling to contain the militants, wasn’t exactly crazy about having Swedish engineers roaming around all over the place, making their lives more difficult by presenting yet another security risk. “During the early part of construction, there were only about 40 Skanska engineers at the site but the army wasn’t happy,” says Udo. “It was only when NHPC intervened and spoke to the Delhi government that we were able to continue working. The army’s reaction was understandable because work on the site, which began in 1989, coincided with an upsurge in militant activity

“The trust and understanding between Skanska and NHPC meant that we usually agreed on our goals and were able to take decisions quickly,” says N. Vishvanathan, director, technical, NHPC. “We were dealing with sensitive issues all the time. In 1994, for example, the militants said that any Indians in Kashmir who had come from outside the state would be killed. Around 90 of our workers — Tamils, Punjabis, Keralites, etc. — came to us, petrified, thinking they would die. They wanted to leave immediately. We had to get our senior executives to speak to them personally and reassure them about the security we would arrange.”

If it wasn’t death threats, it was the dramatic sieges of Hazratbal in 1993 and Charar-e- Sharief in 1995. During the Hazratbal siege, NHPC executives had to embark on some more heavy-duty handholding and reassuring, this time with Skanska and British engineers.  “During the 40 days of the siege, no one worked in the Valley except at Uri,” says Vishvanathan with pride. Likewise during Charar-e-Sharief, not a single day of work was lost although NHPC had to spend a lot of time preventing morale and confidence from nosediving.

The separatist conflict in Kashmir also meant that acquiring land for the project was unusually tricky. After all, how do you establish who exactly owns a patch of land when so many families, both Hindu and Muslim, had fled in such a panic with no time to sort out their papers? It also affected the smallest decisions, such as where to store the explosives needed for the project. The location had to changed when the army protested, saying it was too close to the border and might fall into the hands of the militants.

The most frightening moment was the day in 1991 when two Skanska engineers, out on an excursion to picturesque Gulmarg, were kidnapped by armed militants. To this day, apart from the fact that they were held captive for five months, no one has been told what exactly happened to them. They were whisked out of the country immediately. Work on Uri stopped for eight months. Skanska workers wanted to pull out. NHPC’s Rapid Reassurance Team swung into action once again. “We offered extra security such as armed escorts whenever they had to travel between the site and Srinagar airport and flying senior personnel to the site by helicopter. And we said we would have the Central Industrial Security Force brought in,” recalls Vishvanathan. Five hundred members of the CISF are still based at Uri.

NHPC had to act fast. Another kidnapping or similar incident might have meant doom for Uri. It ordered that no expatriate was to move outside the project site without its express permission; and anyone who had business in Srinagar would go there not on his own but as part of an armed convoy.

In the end, it all came out right. NHPC officials sound and look like the misty-eyed, proud parents of a particularly bonny baby when they talk about Uri. It could, however, so easily have gone horribly wrong. One more kidnapping and Skanska would have called it a day. And NHPC would have been left clearing up the mess instead of happily counting the Rs 25 million that Uri earns every day.

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