Sankosh River

An uncertain future for Bhutan’s largest mega project

No communication on Sunkosh since October 2019

The 2,560 MW Sunkosh hydro project is the largest and also the sole reservoir project in the 10,000 MW by 2020 commitment by the Indian government, but from all indications so far it looks like this large project is headed nowhere.

Bhutan has been actively pushing for the project since 2008 across the term period of three elected governments, but with no result so far.

In fact, the last official communication between both sides on the project was in October 2019 and since then everything has gone silent. This silence and non communication on the project for exactly two years, is unprecedented in hydropower projects between the two nations and points to a lack of interest from the Indian side on the mega project.

In fact, tired with the project not headed anywhere the current Minister of Economic Affairs Lyonpo Loknath Sharma in February 2021 had given itself a deadline till June 2021, by which it would be finalized on whether the project is happening or not.

The minister had given the deadline to the Department of Hydropower and Power Systems (DHPS) to discuss with their Indian counterparts and come up with a decision on either doing the project or not by then.

However, June was around four months ago and there is still no discussion or clarity.

A senior official said that the counterparts could not meet yet though the Bhutanese side had sent communication saying they want to meet and discuss, however, a meeting did not happen. The senior official said that it seems that there is not much interest from the Indian side over the project.

People in Lhamoizingkha, where the project is happening, have been asking the government about the project and they have been told that there is no decision taken yet.

It has been learnt that the MoEA has written to the Power Ministry in India via the Foreign Ministry once again  to start a discussion on Sunkosh and reach a conclusion. The official said the letter calls for a meeting as the aim is to know if the project will be happening or not.

The official said that it is important to know if the project is happening is it does not make much sense to keep it pending like that.

So far there has been no communication from the Indian side in reply to the MoEA’s latest communication.

The official said that if it is clear that Sunkosh is not happening then the government can look at smaller project like Dorjilung or certain other projects where the DPR is already done.

Another official said that an issue with the project is the huge cost followed by the fact that Indian states are increasingly unwilling to buy power at the higher tariff rates a project like Sunkosh would lead to.

However, showing different views within the government on Sunkosh yet another senior official from the hydropower sector said that Sunkosh is an important project for both countries and it is the only reservoir project.

In the meantime, a consultant from Switzerland is investigating the Barrage option for the Punatsangchu 1 project given the instability of the current dam site.

The Punatsangchu II project is on track and has been undergoing construction  and it is picking up pace as more workers are allowed in.

Background

Sunkosh was there in the 10,000 MW by 2020 list. The project has already been agreed to be an Inter Governmental project in late 2019 after years of wrangling over its nature.

Then the next hurdle was the implementation modality. The Indian side proposed the Turnkey model where an Indian Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) would take over everything from design to construction with full management control during construction.

However, the Bhutanese side was not in favour of this and wanted to instead reform the current system of joint control and make improvements based on lessons from past and ongoing projects.

However, even this final hurdle seems to have been passed as both sides more or less informally agreed to modify the current model and make improvements to it.

Even with this final bit out of the way the project has been hanging for two years now and now the decision which has to be made is to do the project or not at all.

A realization is now dawning is that the issue is not the small nitty-gritty details anymore, but no concrete commitment from the Indian side to get the project going.

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