Sikta: A project in making for over 15 years with more controversy than progressJust as 21 accused of corruption have been acquitted, the project is being upgraded and its deadline extended to 2032-33.
When the Sikta Irrigation project was initiated in the fiscal year 2005-06, it was supposed to be completed by 2014-15, at an estimated cost of Rs12.8 billion.
The project in western Nepal was conceptualised with a view to irrigating 33,766 hectares of land west of the Rapti River in Banke district.
The project cost was later revised to Rs25 billion by adding a new component so as to irrigate an additional 9,000 hectares to the east of the Rapti River. The project completion deadline was moved to the end of the current fiscal year 2021-22.
The extended deadline will expire in less than a month but the project’s progress has been just around 70 percent, according to project officials.
“One main canal and one auxiliary canal are near completion, five canals are under construction, but there has been no progress in one canal,” said Krishna Prasad Nepal, deputy director general at the Department of Water Resources and Irrigation.
With the project unlikely to be completed within the existing deadline, the Sikta Irrigation Project has prepared a proposal to extend the deadline by another 11 years while doubling the total cost to over Rs50 billion.
“We have prepared a proposal to complete the entire project by the fiscal year 2032-33 at an estimated cost between Rs50 billion and Rs53 billion,” said Bishal Yadav, senior divisional engineer at Sikta Irrigation Project. “We will submit the proposal to the Department of Water Resources and Irrigation soon to get approval before the current deadline expires.”
He said that certain components have been added in the new proposal so both the cost and time have gone up considerably.
“Regular maintenance of headworks and canal structure, upgrading the irrigation system for using underground water if surface water becomes inadequate in the dry season, addition of Tithihiya branch and Thapuwagaun sub-branch under the main canal on the western part of the Rapti River, and addressing the issues of social concerns such as providing lift irrigation and water supply to the local people, are the new components in the proposal,” said Yadav.
Like many other national pride projects, Sikta is also facing time and cost overruns for the last several years. Problems related to land acquisition, forest clearance and disputes with contractors are other factors delaying the project of prime importance.
The Sikta project has come into the spotlight once again after the Special Court on Sunday acquitted 21 individuals including Bikram Pandey, former minister and the contractor of Sikta’s main canal, of corruption charges.
The Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, on December 7, 2018, had filed a corruption case against them over alleged substandard construction that led to repeated collapse of the main canal of the multi-billion-rupee national pride project.
The main canal was heavily damaged in various places of a 5-km section in June 2016 and July 2018 during the testing process. When the newly built channel was first tested in June 2016, it collapsed in multiple sections. Despite repairs, it broke in July again during another test.
The anti-graft body had swung into action after a government probe panel formed in August 2018 submitted a report stating that the main canal was collapsing repeatedly due to the failure to spot loose soil in the designing phase.
“After the case was filed against the contractor and officials of Sikta, there was confusion about whether we could repair and maintain the main canal and use the canal for irrigation purposes before the court verdict,” said Nepal, who had also served as the chief of the project. “The cabinet on April 23, 2019 gave its nod to operate an irrigation facility after necessary repair and maintenance.”
Based on the cabinet decision, the project started providing irrigation through its main and auxiliary canals on November 16, 2019, according to him.
“Repair and maintenance work are being carried out by replacing the loose soil with compact one whenever water in the canal washes away the loose soil,” said Nepal. “There is no permanent solution to the problem.”
As per the contract, the Kalika Construction, owned by Pandey, was supposed to do the repair and maintenance work for two years after the completion of the project.
But when the canal collapsed the second time, the original deadline given to the contractor to do the repair and maintenance work had already expired and the contract had not been extended.
Officials at the project say that although the main canal is currently supplying water to some farmlands, they are not certain whether the sections constructed on loose soil will be able to sustain the pressure when the project is run in full capacity after its completion.
The corruption case alone is not responsible for the delay in the national pride project, but the ongoing arbitration with Pappu Construction, a sub-contractor that built a part of the project, has also affected its progress.
In July 2016, Coastal-Pappu JV was awarded the contract to construct main and link canals and rehabilitation of headworks of Dunduwa Irrigation System, one of the main branches of the project, for Rs980 million.
After it turned out that the progress on the work handled by Coastal-Pappu JV was just around seven percent by October 2018, the deadline given for the work, the project office in November 2018 had terminated the contract with the company.
Pappu, which is infamous for delaying projects, went for arbitration proceedings, which are still ongoing.
“Because of the ongoing arbitration process, we have not been able to issue a fresh tender notice to implement this section of the project,” said Yadav. “As it has already been four years since the contract was terminated with Pappu, the cost of the new contract will be more than Rs2 billion.”
The Dunduwa Irrigation System project would irrigate 16,000 hectare lands in western Banke district. This area is more than one-third of the total 44,000 hectares that Sikta Project would irrigate.
The Sikta project stands as a classic example of how Nepal’s infrastructure projects never get completed on time.
Since the two decade-old project was started, millions of cusecs of water must have flown in the Rapti river, with the beneficiaries merely becoming spectators.
Although the Special Court gave a clean chit to those accused of corruption, a task force formed to investigate the repeated collapse of the main canal had stated that consultants, while designing the project, failed to carry out a special test of the soil, which led to the construction of a fragile canal.
“The detailed project report prepared by the consultant says nothing about the presence of loose soil in the area where the canal collapsed,” Sushil Chandra Tiwari, the chief of the task force, had told the Post in October 2018.
Although the project office has been replacing loose soil with compact soil in the problem sections of the main canal, it has still not been able to find a permanent solution to the recurring problem.
“Until now, the solution appears to be to continue replacing the loose soil with compact one,” said Yadav. “Whether the government itself will do this or the contractor will, is not clear yet as we have yet to receive the verdict of the Special Court.”