Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Power sector trips on welders shortage

Unless something is done, and fast, the immediate future of the Indian power sector might be akin to the proverbial battle that was lost for want of a horseshoe nail.

Many upcoming power projects are facing a tremendous shortage of welders. These ‘torchbearers' are much in demand — mainly, from West Asia — and retaining them is quite a challenge. Today, there is a dearth of even (the basic) structural welders. But power projects require high-pressure welders who are short in supply throughout the world.

The ‘normal structural welders' get enough work in cities and do not want to go to project sites. The special high-pressure welders are willing to come, but quickly fly away abroad.

“We treat them like executives,” says Mr G. Vijayaraghavan, General Manager, BHEL, who oversees construction of power projects. These masters of metal also get paid as much (or more than) as executives. Typically, a welder gets a basic salary of Rs 30,000 a month and is paid ‘Rs 1,000 per joint'. In a month, a welder would work on 30-40 joints — so he collects about Rs 70,000 a month. But a job in the Gulf could get him twice or three times as much, and that in Europe, easily four times.

The production and erection of a thermal power station boiler is a welding-intensive affair. To make a boiler you need to weld some 30,000 joints. The welding needs to be of high precision.

For example, a 500-MW project will need about 60 ‘normal structural welders' to work for about 15 months. In addition, some 20 ‘high- pressure welders' are required for about 10 months. However, there are not enough welders in India.

The shortage pinches because in the current Eleventh Plan period, India will see an addition of about 55,000 MW, compared with 22,000 MW in the Tenth Plan. As the Twelfth Plan target of 86,500 MW draws near, there is a danger that shortage of welders could prove to be a major impediment.

Project managers are getting around the problem by asking incumbent welders to work more hours, but there are obvious limitations. Welding is tough, more so in power projects where the workers often have to work at heights of 80 feet and under harsh conditions. Fatigue affects quality of work.

Further, as the sector moves towards better technologies, the need for precision and, consequently, skilled welders will increase. 

Srikanth Nyshadham

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