Posted by : Sajith Sreedharan on December 12th, 2019 in Infrastructure Improvement Process and Advice

Designation : Managing Director

Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, civil engineering infrastructure designed and built in India was based on the then-prevalent state of technical knowledge and general practices of British professionals.  Thanks to their simple and robust construction, and the use of good quality, naturally available materials, these structures have required relatively lower maintenance effort over time, especially when compared to modern structures.  Evidence shows that some of these “old” structures including, PWD road bridges, railway bridges and dams have stood the test of time for over 100 years. In fact, we use many of these structures even today!  It would not be incorrect to say that these structures were frequently “over-designed”, which was definitely not a bad thing in the ‘lower cost, lower competition’ world of yore.

As the latter half of the 20th century ushered in advances in construction materials, building technology and analytical design tools, it led to the erection of modern structures that are much lighter than their older counterparts, but unfortunately they are also less robust and as we shall learn they will not last as long or require a lot more maintenance.

Procurement terms for private sector concessions as well as financial and legal arrangements for project financing have also led to a different philosophy in designing and executing infrastructure works.  We perhaps need to recognize that this will bring a new set of problems to our stock of infrastructure.  These problems include:

  • advances in technology use less materials and employ “factory-manufactured” parts, what is hidden is these parts are more precisely designed for life span as well as strength, so today’s structures are not as durable as earlier structures
  • the concept of “design life” leads to structures being deliberately designed to last only 50 years – sometimes even less
  • ”cost over quality” procurement arrangements and the desire of developers to maximise their rate of financial return on equity and borrowed money further encourages slimmed-down structures of sometimes dubious quality and as a result lower durability

The potential impact of these issues is modern structures will inevitably require more targeted maintenance effort to ensure they perform reasonably well over their intended design lives.

Since economic liberalization in 1991, India has built substantial amounts of new infrastructure.  Whereas in the past, such infrastructure was primarily planned, designed, financed and built by the public sector, many recent infrastructure works have been financed and built by the private sector under the aegis of various concession agreements with Government agencies.

Unfortunately, from the moment we hit the road in the morning to begin our day, it’s difficult to ignore the risks to life and limb posed by the infrastructure created within the last two decades.  Take one example, post-tensioned concrete bridges have become common place in cities for flyovers and metros.  These require regular, organized inspection. The developer who builds and operates them is incentivized to avoid maintenance to enhance his investment returns.  So, it is critical to public safety that inadequate maintenance is identified and prevented by an independent body.  However, there appears to be no statutory or regulatory structure in place to ensure that such inspection and maintenance objectives are met.

At the same time the port sector has witnessed significant investment in capacity by the public and the private sector. The private sector’s contribution was of course the major share. These were primarily financed by debt raised from banks. To keep up with demand for port infrastructure including berths, breakwaters and shore utilities were built and handling equipment was procured at a much faster pace than ‘normal’. Although technology has helped these “fast builds”, most engineers would agree that port infrastructure should be built to adhere to specific quality standards, using good construction materials, skilled manpower and above all, adequate funding – none of which come cheap.

Over the years, failing to deliver quality infrastructure has led to rising maintenance costs.  The situation is made a safety and economic issue by inadequately equipped agencies who fail to properly inspect and maintain economically vital (and valuable) infrastructure.  A lack of stringent guidelines to monitor maintenance of infrastructure allows developers to avoid the maintenance required, Last but not the least, faults due to lack of proper study and quality data-gathering at the feasibility and design stage lead to design inadequacy.

While we have seen some improvements in the recent past in terms of early stage studies, better monitoring guidelines, quality construction and relatively stringent maintenance regime, it is still evident that much of the recently built infrastructure has already started crumbling. There are two reasons for this, one of which is poor construction quality. The other could be attributed to excessive utilization in order to bridge the demand-supply gap (e.g. witness berths operated at well over 80% occupancy).

If I’m asked what could be done in the coming years to address these concerns, I would suggest the following:

  • a project vision that goes beyond 25 years
  • a robust design backed up by good quality data, which is not compromised on cost-cutting grounds
  • a reasonably accurate initial cost estimate that does not make the investment lack financial viability (which may mean users paying more….)
  • trained manpower capable of building and maintaining such infrastructure – this requires investment in skill enhancing training for workers
  • a statutory regime that enforces inspection and maintenance standards, as well as providing a clear approach to accountability for design, construction and maintenance
  • emphasis on preventative maintenance rather than on ‘making good’ after a failure has already occurred

It’s high time that India Inc. along with the responsible national and state-level agencies corrected the flaws that exist in our stock of infrastructure. We also must devise a system that ensures prescribed quality standards for construction are met in practice. With rising costs and a massive shortage of skilled manpower and other critical resources, these are important steps in building sustainable infrastructure with low lifetime costs that would serve the national economy for many years to come.

Author Details:
Sajith Sreedharan
Managing Director,
Eka Infra Consultancy

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *