Melamchi delayed by government extortion

Kunda Dixit

Bikash Thapa in Annapurna Post, 24 December

Just as the much-delayed Melamchi water supply project neared completion with 90% of its tunnel construction complete, it is once more in limbo. Every politician in the past few years has been promising the citizens of Kathmandu Valley adequate water supply from the project. The deadline has been pushed back repeatedly for the last 30 years, and the latest official completion date was mid-February 2019.

The Italian contractor had asked for Rs 1.61 billion compensation for delays caused by the earthquake and Indian Blockade in 2015. A Dispute Resolution Board decided in October to award the contractor Rs 350 million, and to pay the amount by 16 November. But when the money did not materialise, the contractor said it could not continue the work and wrote a letter to the ministry saying it was withdrawing from the project.

The talk in the ministry is that Secretary of the Water Supply Ministry Gajendra Thakur and Surya Raj Kandel of the Melamchi Project were ‘bargaining’ with the contractor for kickbacks. Secretary Thakur has a reputation for even forcing subordinates in every ministry he has worked in to pay up to be evaluated positively. The contractor refused to fork out any kickback. Thakur and Kandel then retaliated by refusing to sanction the compensation payment.

Thakur even complained to Prime Minister Oli that the contractor was going to flee the country with Rs 2 billion. Oli ordered action to be taken against Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti di Ravenna (CMC). Italian and other nationals from the project who were going home for Christmas holidays were stopped at the airport and their passports confiscated. Thakur himself accompanied Police on a raid in a hotel in Thamel where some CMC staff were staying.

The extortion and corruption of this sordid case is bound to have a negative impact on Nepal’s investment climate, besides further delaying Melamchi. Thakur even called Nepal’s top companies, offering them new contracts to complete the project.

The tunnel work is nearly finished, but the headworks construction has not even started, and this will take another year-and-half. Thakur’s plan was to award this contract to someone else, by more than doubling its cost to Rs 4 billion.

There is also evidence that Secretary Thakur is working with the knowledge of Minister Bina Magar. It is a shame that a bureaucrat who has left a trail of corruption everywhere he has served should be in charge of a National Pride Project like Melamchi.

Corruption in Melamchi is not just corruption, it is a crime against the people.