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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

All-weather border outposts: Ministries in blame game as Ladakh project fails

The failure of the project has pitted two key ministries of the government — Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Jal Shakti — against each other.

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi |
Updated: September 19, 2021 1:11:21 pm
The construction of over 40 integrated border outposts was announced by the government in 2015.

At a time when Indian troops are still in a faceoff with the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh, an infrastructure project for troops guarding the region has turned out to be a non-starter after five years of work and investment of crores of rupees.

And the failure of the project has also pitted two key ministries of the government — Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Jal Shakti — against each other.

The project involved construction of over 40 integrated Border Outposts (BOPs) announced by the government in 2015. These BOPs were supposed to be the first of their kind in the region with freeze-proof toilets, running water and temperature maintained above 22 degree Celsius at all times.

The project was seen as a significant step in improving border infrastructure for troops on the frontline at a time when infrastructure on the Chinese side was seen to be years ahead of India.

The first BOP, as a pilot for the project, was sanctioned to be built for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) in Lukung, on the western bank of Pangong Tso. The lake area saw serious confrontation between Indian and Chinese troops for nine months before disengagement was achieved in February this year.

The project was awarded to National Projects Construction Corporation (NPCC), a PSU under the Ministry of Jal Shakti. Five years later, and after spending about Rs 20 crore, the project has, for all practical purposes, been declared a failure by the ITBP.

Sources in the ITBP and the MHA said the BOP is unable to maintain temperatures of over 10-11 degree Celsius and the quality of construction is so poor that the 40-odd jawans staying in the BOP have begun to miss the insulated pre-fabricated huts where they lived earlier.

The MHA, sources said, is so unhappy that it has not only stopped part payment to the NPCC for the project, but is also thinking of dumping the project altogether.

The NPCC, on the other hand, has blamed the ITBP and the MHA for the failure of the project, claiming that withholding the payment has resulted in the sub-contractor concerned not maintaining the heating system and thereby negatively impacting the efficiency of the BOP.

Sources said the ITBP has withheld payment to the tune of Rs 4 crore to NPCC for its failure to maintain the desired temperature within the BOP. “The contract between us and the NPCC was to construct a BOP where temperature would remain above 22 degree Celsius all year round, even if the outside temperature was minus 44 degree. The NPCC has failed to deliver the most fundamental of requirements. For us, the BOP is still incomplete. So, why should we release the entire payment?” a senior ITBP officer said.

Sources in the MHA said even the quality of construction is poor. “NPCC was supposed to provide Rajdhani train-like insulated windows in the BOP with double-sheets of glass, but they have used poor quality glass and fixed the same in aluminium frames, leading to icy draughts wafting into the BOP. The jawans are saying they felt warmer in their prefab huts,” an official of the MHA said.

The BOP was inspected last year by the Secretary (Border Management) in the MHA along with top officers of the ITBP. Ever since there have been multiple meetings and communications between the arms of the two ministries to improve the situation without any consequence, sources said.

Responding to queries from The Sunday Express, D P Singh, Head of Department (Projects), NPCC, said the work was completed in all respects as per the scope of the project in October 2019, but the 40-odd ITBP personnel moved into the BOP only in October 2020.

“Temperature of the ground floor was observed to be in between 19.5 and 22 Deg Cel and at the first floor it was 17 to 19.5 Deg Cel in the months of October 2020 to January 2021,” Singh said, providing screenshots of the temperature reading.

ITBP officials, however, said they too have taken readings every day and the temperature is hardly maintained above 10-11 degree.

The NPCC claimed it had gone beyond the scope of the work to accommodate demands of the ITBP and Secretary (BM), agreeing to additional construction and one-year maintenance. But the MHA, it said, was not releasing its payment, leading to maintenance issues.

According to Singh, ITBP is yet to clear outstanding bills of Rs 4 crore and GST of over Rs 1 crore. “Due to this, neither maintenance is taking place nor technology partners are willing to help them out due to non-payments for the last two years,” he said.

An NPCC official involved with the project said the heating system in the BOP works on solar and geo-thermal energy. “There are some chemicals and liquids that regularly need replacement in the heating system for it to remain efficient. The sub-contractor has not been paid, and so it is refusing to maintain it,” he said.

According to NPCC, to increase the efficiency of green features of the building, it had submitted an enhancement proposal to the ITBP in August 2020. This, it said, was “as per the discussion held with MHA and ITBP officers. But till date, no decision has been communicated in this regard.”

An official of MHA, however, said this was only a way of hiding its inability to deliver the project. “They are now asking us to build a wall between the BOP and the Pangong lake to break the wind. You have failed to deliver the agreed project and are now asking us to spend more,” the official said.

A detailed questionnaire sent by The Sunday Express to the ITBP and the MHA did not elicit any response. The NPCC, meanwhile, has sent ITBP an additional bill of Rs 1.35 crore.

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