By the time Indian President R. Venkataraman inaugurated Bhutan’s massive Chukha Hydro Electric Project on 21 October, it had already become the nation’s leading employer and exporter. The project commissioned its first generator in September 1986 and the fourth and last one in August this year, generating a total of 336 megawatts. Thimphu has kept five percent of this output for itself and sold the rest through high tension lines to power-hungry industries in Bihar, West Bengal, Sikkim and as far south as Orissa.
With Chukha, the Bhutanese economy has taken a leap forward. The abundant electricity that will see Thimphu well into the next century also allows its planners to implement their environmental policies more confidently. The Bhutanese economy has taken a leap forward.
Cementing A Friendship
The inauguration of Chukha was notable in other respects as well. Its sheer size and logistical complexity dwarfed all other public works projects in Bhutan combined. It was also a milestone in the regional co-operation, with an amicable deal worked out to share the renewable hydropower resource for the benefit of both countries.
At the inauguration, President Venkataraman said the Project symbolized the firm friendship between India and Bhutan, first forged between King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s. According to HM King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Indo-Bhutan relations had reached “a state of full maturity” with the power project. The national weekly, Kuensel stated that as the largest and most successful venture between the two countries, Chukha cemented India’s role as a partner in Bhutan’s development.
The Ultimate Industrial Exercise
It was in the early 1960s that plans were formulated to try and exploit the abundant energy of Bhutan’s rivers, which drop precipitously from the Himalayan glaciers to the Duars of Assam. Indian surveyors calculated that the Wangchu (Thimphu River) had a potential of 420 megawatts over its length. The Chukha Project agreement was signed in New Delhi in 1974, and construction began almost immediately through loans and grants provided by the Indian Government, which ultimately amounted to IRs. 2440 million.
The project became the ultimate industrial experience for Bhutan as a giant complex took shape in Chukha valley, which is about half way on the national highway between the border town of Phuntsholing and the capital. The size and variety of trucks and equipment that plied the roads were a source of constant amazement to the local people. In a country which has never had large public works, the project had 10,605 workers at one stage in 1983. Today,with 2,400 workers in its payroll, Chukha remains the largest single employer after the Government.
The highway to the capital looks down upon the town where the Chukha staff lives, but there is nothing else to show for the project. That is because the entire power generation complex is dug under the 3000 feet of mountain. The little township is the domain of Karnataka-born G.N.Rao, 66, general manager of the project. Before starting work at Chukha in 1977 as superintending engineer, Rao worked in building the Farakka Barrage. It is with some amount of parental pride that he shows the visitor around the project.
Music To The Ears
A dam holds back the water of the Wangchu with four tall gates and channels it through a 6.5 km headrace tunnel. This water is fed into two steel-lined pressure shafts which drop 1,500 feet at a 50 degree angle, gaining the furious momentum required to turn the four turbines at 300 rpm so that they produce 84 megawatts each.
The powerhouse under 3000 feet of mountain and contains the only elevator in Bhutan. It is adorned with religious motifs and paintings of the Buddha and Tara. At the far end, a dragon reaches for the ceiling. Only the metal domes of the turbines are visible, with flashing lights and more religious motifs on their side. Only the deep vibrations on the concrete floor indicate the electricity being generated below.
Bhutan earned Nu 280 million from power export in 1987 (Nu 1 = IRs 1). By the end of August, the figure for 1988 was already Nu 470 million, due to Chukha. The vibrations in the powerhouse floor was music for any planner’s ears.