Kaalkut. Chapter 16

8 January 2018.

Mardan, Pakistan

Young Mohammed Tareen, the local Paksitani assistant to the lead construction engineer of an upcoming 900 MW coal power plant was having a bad day at work. He had earned his civil engineering degree in Germany and had spent 2 years learning Mandarin on his father’s suggestion. He wanted to stay there but there were not many jobs in a sluggish economy. Also, Europe had made life for Pakistanis a bit more difficult since last few years. He drifted through a bunch of low paid temporary jobs in Germany before his father, a retired Pakistani army Brigadier had pulled some strings to get him a job with Chinese construction giant, Infra Sino.

The company assigned him to the construction project of the 3rd largest coal powered power plant in Pakistan and he joined in as an assistant to the head engineer of the project, a Heng Bai from Shenzhen, China. There were nearly 400 people involved in first phase of the construction and he was one of only 75-80 Pakistanis in the whole team. He was also the senior most and youngest among all of them. Rest of Pakistani workers  were all  labourers on daily wages. All the construction work including design,  measurements and machine operations was done by Chinese. He had joined the job expecting Chinese to be in a few important positions, but even the earth moving machines were being operated by Chinese workers. The amount of money spent as airfare of one single Chinese employee would have paid 3 month’s salary of a local Pakistani. 

After arriving at the site, he had done some calculations about the finances of the project and it didn’t make much sense to him. There were 3 such power plants to be constructed  by Infra Sino in Pakistan with equal investments from both sides. He did some research about similar projects elsewhere and realised that the amount of money being paid by Pakistani government was almost enough for construction of all 3 plants without any significant financial investment from IS. Additionally, Pakistani share of the revenue would have been zero for first 5 years of operation and only 30 percent after that. 

The coal produced in Pakistan was not of desired quality and even that’d have been imported from China. Negotiations were going on with another Chinese company for mining of a high quality coal block in Balochistan, but they were asking for nearly full control of the mining, processing and sale of coal. If that contract was signed, Chinese could have sold that coal to the power plants at the same price as imported. Local Paksitani electricity boards were legally bound to purchase and distribute the electricity produced at these plants for a minimum of 10 years at prices which were not clearly defined. 

His father had laughed and asked him not to worry about it when he had pointed it out. When he persisted, he was told sternly to shut up and ensure that the construction goes on without any issues. He then started to realise how his father could afford his own lavish lifestyle and fully paid studies in a foreign country for him. He too decided to just play along, collect the salary cheques and hope to land a better job once he gained some good work experience.

This power plant was one of the many Chinese projects under progress in Pakistan as part of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and like quite a few of them had run in to trouble for one reason or another. The main problem today was a large group of protesters from the village where construction was taking place. Around 400 acres of land was acquired from the farmers and compensation paid according to current market rates. There were around a dozen families which were unhappy with it and had been a thorn in his flesh since the beginning. A crowd of 200 people, some from the families and a few curious locals were massed in front of one of the approach roads blocking the traffic. As the senior most Pakistani employee of IS, he was the one usually tasked to deal with such issues. Not exactly what he wanted, but he didn’t have much choice in the matter. Not a single Chinese worker knew any local language and most seemingly didn’t understand English either. So a fair amount of his workload involved acting as a liaison between Chinese staff of IS with Pakistani staff, contractors and government officials.

He called the local police station and explained the situation to them. The inspector in charge either had instructions or payment from the correct places and was usually quite prompt with such issues. He assured Tareen that he’d be there shortly. He disconnected the call and considered going out to talk with the protesters while waiting for police to arrive. Then decided against it. Most of those people were usually highly irate and had no interest in civilised talk. After explaining their grievances to him 3-4 times and seeing no result, they’d either just ignore him or shower him with the choicest abuses. He also feared for his personal safety in front of such a mob. His father had made it very clear that he was not supposed to make any attempts to deal with these mobs in any case.

He watched the commotion from his temporary shelter, an air-conditioned metal container repurposed as a field office and tried to hear their angry rants above the din of construction machinery. Some of the local workers were from the same village and they had complained about their families were facing social boycott from the angry villagers. Ten of them had not shown up for work under pressue. It was not a huge number, but it slowed down the work a little bit and if more Pakistani employees stopped work, then he’d have to bear another tongue lashing from Bai. Latter had no concerns about who Tareen’s father was.

A police van reached the site 20 minutes after the call was made and he saw some heated conversation going on between the protesters and the police. Then it ended like it did usually with police brandishing their sticks and two three fires in the air. He winced at the noise and felt a twinge of pity for the protesting families. Majority of them needed their lands to grow their food crops or raise animals. The compensation given to them was barely enough to meet their expenses for a few months. They were not entirely wrong in asking for more money. But this land acquisition part of the project was handled by a committee staffed exclusively by some colleagues of his Brigadier father. There was not much he could do to help those protesting farmers even if he wanted to.   

14 Jan 2018

Pakistan News & Information Service 

BREAKING NEWS: Scam worth PKR 400 Billion alleged in Infra Sino Thermal Power Project 

A group of civil activists led by noted advocate Shahbaz Zaman have filed a petition in Pakistan Supreme court demanding immediate investigations into the finances of a multi-billion dollar thermal power project under construction by Chinese company Infra Sino. As proof, they’ve submitted some documents from the joint Sino-Pak committee overseeing the project which allegedly expose the massive fraud at cost of Pakistani people. 

In his address to the reporters outside the court, advocate Zaman alleged that the Pakistani government has been taken for a ride by the Chinese and this project will end up pushing Pakistan in to a deeper debt trap. He claimed that even though Pakistan is paying for half the project cost, all the construction material, high value labour and expertise is 100% Chinese with Pakistanis acting as menial labourers and mere clients instead of equal partners.  He claimed that Pakistani electricity boards are obligated to start paying for electricity produced in these plants from 2020 onwards even if the construction of power plants is not finished by then. He said that it’s completely preposterous as the construction is completely controlled by Chinese companies and their Chinese employees with no input of any Pakistani company or government agency.

He further claimed that under the terms of the project, per unit cost of electricity produced will have to be PKR 39 or more for Pakistan to break even after they start to get 30 percent revenue. With current electricity tariffs starting from PKR 10, this type of tariff structure seems completely unaffordable for Pakistani public. 

This project was already under heavy criticism from various quarters for various reasons. Only last week, World Bank had raised some concerns over the extraordinarily high cost of older technology based coal power plants and about the rise in pollution.

Pakistan’s Finance Minister Muzammil Hussain dismissed the allegations saying that all the details about the project were considered carefully and are available for anyone to go read and analyse. He expressed confidence that the Supreme Court will dismiss the petition after going through what he alleged was a politically motivated petition.

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