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Who is covering up shoddy work at Karuma, Isimba?

In the host of correspondences seen by this newspaper, ministry of Energy officials appear not only mute but also protective of Energy Infratech PVT Ltd, the Indian firm providing consultancy services to government at Isimba and Karuma hydro-power projects.
On their part, the Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited (UEGCL), the implementing agency in the multimillion dollar projects, raises the red flag on alleged shoddy supervision by the consultants, including wanting competence of on-site staff.

Under a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed on December 3, 2013, between government (represented by the Energy ministry) and the Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited (UETCL) and UEGCL in relation to the power sector projects, the two entities were appointed as “lead agencies in overseeing the performance of the EPC contractors, project supervision consultants and project managers.”

The ministry, however, remains the principal signatory to the dam contracts and retains overall implementation responsibility, “checking on the performance of the two agencies and coordinating them to ensure timely delivery.” But Mr Harrison Mutikanga, the Chief Executive Officer UEGCL, says their hands have been tied and, “we have been reduced to raising the red flag and we have raised enough of the red flag.”

How consultant exposed shoddy work
On June 22, 2015, UEGCL, in a letter to the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Energy, revealed that it had engaged a short-term hydro-power expert to undertake a review and quality audit of the Karuma and Isimba projects.
The Austrian firm, ILF Consulting Engineers, in their ‘Advisory Review and High Level Independent Audit of Karuma and Isimba’ undertaken by Dr Kamal Gautam (the consultant) between May 12 and June 12, 2015, analysed the project implementation system, reviewing contractor’s performance and evaluating the status of the project from the view of costs, time, quality. It also identified lapses that have impaired the project.

“The confusing project management organisation structure of the employer and conflicting roles and responsibilities between MEMD and UEGCL has hindered the project implementation process,” the report states, before describing it as ineffective, and unable to provide firm leadership of the projects.
The consultant also observed that the tripartite December 3, 2013, MoU between MEMD, UEGCL and UETCL has yet to be implemented by first institutionalising the Project Steering Committee which should delegate appropriate authority to the two implementing agencies for effective project execution.

Questions on competence of staff
The consultant was of the opinion that “Energy Infratech’s lack of proactive approach and due to lack of competent personnel on the ground combined with the non-compliance attitude of the EPC contractor has already led to 16 months of delays in submission of the Basic Design Report and continued work without approved construction drawings at Karuma HPP.”
This newspaper has seen photographic evidence of defects in concrete due to what experts say was inappropriate placement and compaction methods, unsuitable method of concrete placement, leaking pipes and proof of leakages on parts of the dams. In some parts of the dams, the photos reveal, manual concrete mixing is done while concrete mixers lie idle on the site. It is these issues that the supervisor (owner’s engineer) is expected to have raised to the Chinese contractors.

When Daily Monitor put these issues to Mr V. Vasu, the project director Uganda Operations Energy Infratech, in a telephone interview from India, said: “There has been delay but we are meeting the project requirements and doing our job very well.”
In a 22-page document to the Energy ministry, the company explains the technical issues raised by the UEGCL team and now seeks to brief the President in the second week of April on “few concerns with respect to quality and effective supervision in both projects.”
Officials at State House could neither confirm nor deny if Mr R.V. Shahi, the chairperson Energy Infratech and former power secretary of the government of India, had secured the appointment with Mr Museveni.

The consultant’s report claimed the company lacked competent key personnel on the ground and asked the ministry to ask it to improve its performance by assigning personnel at the site. But the Indian firm claims it has 40 staff on site that are rich with industry experience in similar projects around the world.
On the project director at the time, Mr S.Krishnamurthy, an electrical engineer with 30 years’ experience - most of it in electro mechanical testing, commissioning, maintenance and operation of various hydropower plants, the ILF consultant said he was “unable to find any relevant construction management experience” to qualify his current role as the director for both projects”.
Ordinarily, the projects of the magnitude of Karuma and Isimba would be undertaken by highly skilled hydro-power engineers with industry experience and training in geotechnical, dam engineering and construction management with hands-on skills on cost, quality and schedule control. However, the director’s experience appeared limited to India save for an assignment in Tajikistan for Varzob I Hydro-Power Project.

ILF Consulting Engineers also reviewed the project manager (Karuma), Mr S.K Saxena, a civil engineer who joined Uttaranchal Pradesh Irrigation Department of India in 1972, bowing out in 2009 as a career civil servant with 37 years of experience. He was found wanting in hydro-power project related experience as he had not supervised or managed construction of hydropower projects having tunnels or caverns before joining Energy Infratech in November 2011 and was assigned concrete quality control of the two hydropower projects in Uganda, his first international task.

Expertise of project manager
Similarly, the report punched holes in the expertise of Mr Bashishtha Rai, the Isimba project manager; a civil engineer who it said “lacked hands on experience in dealing with an EPC contractor as head of Owner’s Engineer for a project like Isimba.” There was also a mismatch between the organogram and staff at the site.

Following these revelations and pressure from UEGCL mounted on the Energy ministry, Energy Infratech made changes in its hierarchy that saw the three officials booted out.
On October 21, 2015, Energy Infratech communicated to the Energy ministry that Mr V. Vasu would take over from Mr Krishnamurthy as project director for the two dams. Mr Surendra Kumar Saxena was replaced by Mr Brajesh Kumar Ojha while Mr Rai was replaced by Mr Dhruva Chakravorty as project manager Isimba.
The developments were approved by Henry Bidasala Igaga on behalf of the Permanent Secretary (Mr Kabagambe Kalisa) on February 13, 2015.

‘Incompetent supervisors’ defended
Intriguingly though, on June 19, 2014, Mr Paul Mubiru, the accounting officer in the ministry of Energy, had written in spirited defence of the Indian firm asking UEGCL to leave the quality issues it raised to “higher decision levels,” adding: “The fact that the consultant is able to see and point out those areas means that the consultant is effectively on the ground. Furthermore, the level of consultant deployment is a contractual matter which UEGCL on its own may not be able to handle since it is not party to the contract with the consultant.”
This came after a February 10 letter in which he questioned the technical competence of Mr Mutikanga to raise issue with Energy Infratech.
The ping-pong between Energy officials and UEGCL would continue unabated, culminating in the latter contracting two firms as a stop gap measure to practically do the same work Energy Infratech is doing.

Animosity, however, still rages as the ministry and the implementing agency continue to read from different scripts and the Indian firm not comfortable working with the two European companies which it beat in the earlier bidding process.
Mr Vasu said in a telephone interview last Friday: “Can UEGCL kindly let us do our work? Our contract is with the ministry of Energy but they are trying to create the story that the ministry is failing yet we are delivering per the contract. They are trying to put down my supervision efforts. There is no trouble in Uganda, everything is going on well and they are only trying to make a mountain out of a molehill after getting two consultants without competitive bidding.”
Another official working with Energy Infratech in Kampala last Friday insisted their men are on ground and instead accused UEGCL of paying monies to experts who are not on ground and “keep raising small and negligible issues” with their work.

A glance at the three companies

The Swiss company, AF Consult, on its website claims it has since 1895 “been part of four major technological revolutions in steam power, electricity, nuclear power and digitalization and by 2015 had attained capacity and competence of 7,500 highly skilled co-workers.”
SMEC (from Australia) on its part claims it is “a professional services firm recognised around the world for providing high-quality consultancy services on major infrastructure projects.

SMEC has more than 5,400 employees and an established network of more than 75 offices throughout Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and North and South America and provides consultancy services to a broad range of industry sectors, including transport, hydropower and energy...”
Energy Infratech PVT claims an engineering staff of more than 350 and cites its presence, “in countries such as Bhutan, Uganda and Rwanda where we are either undergoing or completed our assignments.”