Melamchi project payment row could hinder work yet again

Vendors and suppliers hired by the previous contractor, Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti di Ravenna, threaten stir over unpaid dues.

Work at the Melamchi Water Supply Project has been halted since last December.

The long-halted Melamchi Water Supply Project is likely to face yet another hurdle as unpaid local sub-contractors, vendors and workers are planning to obstruct the work on the project site. The national pride project, which will supply 170millon litres of water per day to Kathmandu Valley from Melamchi River in Sindhupalchok, has been in limbo since last December. The project work was expected to resume after the government hired a new contractor to complete the project after calling a new bid.

Six months after terminating the contract with the Italian contractor Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti di Ravenna (CMC), the government selected Sinohydro Corporation Ltd of China to complete the remaining work of the project nearly two weeks ago. The contract signing is yet to take place. The government plans to expedite the project works by hiring the new builder, but a group of sub-contractors, vendors and workers, who had earlier worked with the CMC, has threatened to block the project work unless their dues are paid. They are planning to announce fresh protest programmes on Thursday.

Uttar Kumar Shrestha, who supplied boulders and sand to the Italian contractor, said they will not let any contractor work on the site unless their dues are cleared. “We have been demanding our money which has not been paid for a year now,” Shrestha told the Post. “How long can I wait? I had to sell my four trucks and mortgage my house to pay interest on bank loans.” Shrestha said CMC owed him over Rs40 million. “I have submitted all the bills and documents to the government. We worked on a government project site so the government should address our concerns,” Shrestha said.

After grievances of agitated sub-contractors, vendors and labour suppliers grew bigger, the government had collected details on the dues of various parties who had worked with the CMC. A 14-member committee was formed to make recommendations to the government on how to clear the outstanding payment owed by the CMC to the concerned contractors and vendors. The committee had collected claims worth over Rs1.67 billion from at least 87 firms“If only the government had paid the amount as decided by the Dispute Adjudication Board last year, our payment would have been cleared already,” Shrestha said.

The committee report was submitted to the Melamchi Water Supply Development Board which then forwarded the recommendations to the Water Supply Ministry. Ritesh Kumar Shakya, the spokesperson for the ministry, told the Post that the ministry could not make the payments merely based on the recommendations of the committee. “The committee has compiled the total dues amount based on claims of local suppliers and vendors. We need to evaluate the claims before we go ahead with the payment,” Shakya said. “The government is not primarily responsible for clearing their dues. They worked for CMC, which has already left. So their claims should be against CMC first.”

The protesting contractors and suppliers, however, have long been demanding that the government make the payments from CMC’s guarantee amount which has been blocked in Nepali banks. According to the board, the seized performance guarantee of CMC amounts to Rs2.9bilion. Buddhi Krishna Lamichhane, whose company supplied labours for the project, told the Post that his dues stand to the tune of Rs1.28 million. “I have been associated with the Melamchi project since it began. Payment would come in every four-five months in the past. Sometimes, we had to block their vehicles for our payments,” Lamichhane said. “This time, the vendors and workers are in a big problem. If they do not believe our claims, they can at least believe the documents signed by their officials.”

Shakya, however, said the dues of agitated vendors and resumption of the project are two different issues. “Clearing of dues after verification has nothing to do with starting the project. We can resolve these issues through discussions, but no one should be hindering the national pride project,” Shakya said. When the CMC abandoned the project following a financial dispute, 95 per cent of the work had been completed. “The government should not mobilise any force to our protest. We are not individual victims; our families have also been affected,” Lamichhane said.

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