The roads and highways sector is a key priority area in the government’s infrastructure development agenda. The sector is witnessing increased pace of project award and completion. Moreover, the government’s flagship programme, Bharatmala, is expected to be a game changer for the sector. With a number of projects on the anvil, substantial opportunities exist for all stakeholders. However, to capitalise on these opportunities, several issues need to be addressed in a timely and proper manner.
Indian Infrastructure hosted a special interactive event in association with Eicher on “New Challenges in Roads and Bridges Construction”. The event comprised panel discussions highlighting the viewpoint of different stakeholders – the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), private developers and operators, construction contractors and technology providers. Excerpts from the event…
Expressway design and construction
Expressway development has been a high priority area for the government for a number of years now. In recent years, several noteworthy projects have been commissioned such as the Delhi-Meerut Expressway and the Eastern Peripheral Expressway. Under the Bharatmala programme, the government has laid out ambitious plans for constructing a world-class network of expressways across the length and breadth of the country. The government is also looking to revive the build-operate-transfer (BOT) model for road construction. This will help tap private capital, which has hitherto shied away from taking the market risk.
For construction of roads, including expressways, land acquisition has emerged as the biggest challenge for NHAI. The cost of acquisition has increased significantly, after the introduction of Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (RFCTLARR) Act, 2013.
The multifold increase in land cost post the RFCTLARR Act, increases in land value, declaration of some villages as special villages, use of agricultural land for residential and commercial purposes, and huge costs involved in land compensation act as major impediments for developers. Delays in timely project execution on account of delays in acquiring land impact investor interest too as they become wary of funding projects.
A major issue being faced by construction contractors is the sourcing of bulk raw materials. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh , especially the western part of the state, there are no mines for bulk raw materials, and thus the material is procured from other states like Rajasthan and Haryana.
Going forward, certain steps need to be taken as far as expressway development is concerned. Safety of people and goods should be given the topmost priority in expressway construction, and the luxury aspect should come later. Expressways, by definition have to be access-controlled and access should be given to urban centres only. Meanwhile, project design should be given due importance and ample time needs to be given to prepare feasibility reports, projects design and drawings, etc., so that the “change in scope” scenario at a later stage can be minimised, if not completely avoided.
Best practices for speedier construction and timely completion
Engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contracts for executing road and elevated structure projects are fraught with a number of issues. While land acquisition and securing of requisite statutory clearances remain the major bottlenecks in project execution, another major issue pertains to the absence of an exclusive “design period” in a contract. The current practice involves a design period that runs in tandem with the construction period, giving rise to a number of issues at a later stage (eventually pushing costs and timelines upwards). The consequent change in the scope of contract is a major impediment to timely execution of projects.
Moreover, the quality of detailed project reports is sub-standard. Feasibility reports too become a source of problems as there is no ownership of the reports by the authority preparing it. Currently, feasibility reports are for “indicative” purposes only and any deviation from the actual parameters (causing a change in project scope), is attributed to the contractor.
Capacity constraint is another area of concern. Civil engineering, as a profession, is facing a paucity of skilled personnel. For many years, the course was not taught at Indian universities, creating a serious dearth of talent. Capacity constraints have led to understaffing, which, in turn impacts timely execution of projects. Legal issues are also on the rise. About 95 per cent of the arbitration cases pertain to shifting of utilities and land acquisition.
On the positive side, the time taken to construct projects (a bridge, for instance), has come down considerably from about two years to 8-9 months. However, this holds true only if the scope of work is final at the time of signing of the contract. Meanwhile, the bonus clause for early completion of projects has also been encouraging.
The increasing use of technology by various stakeholders is also being seen, aiding in better and faster project execution. Practices such as greater digitalisation and cloud usage are reducing the stakeholders’ time for decision making, while bringing in efficiency gains. Besides, deployment of the latest equipment is also gaining traction and projects across the country are witnessing increasing use of equipment that is deployed globally. However, much needs to be done for further improvements and to overcome the current challenges. One key aspect in this regard is the standardisation of project drawings. Globally, more time is spent on the planning part of the project than that taken to execute it. This practice (reflected in standard drawings and better planning) holds the key to significant improvements in execution of road and elevated structure projects in India. Another area of improvement can be the adoption of modular/pre-cast structures that can result in notable time savings.
Another area to look at is the inclusion of a design period – a six-month period may be introduced that would involve only deliberations to finalise the project design. No construction work should be carried out during this period. Capacity building is also a pressing need.
New requirements in bridges and elevated structures
The past few years have witnessed a rise in the number of elevated structure collapses. This has been a result of a number of factors. Contractors with a fewer number or no years of experience in building elevated structures have bagged contracts by bidding aggressively. However, they have failed to deliver quality infrastructure. Meanwhile, sometimes, in an attempt to meet the unrealistic time schedules and milestones, contractors end up compromising on quality.
Works that need to be undertaken prior to start of construction such as soil investigations and hydrological studies are not being given due attention. Soil investigation, in particular, is not being carried out properly by the agencies. One of the major issues faced in the development of elevated structures (especially for metro lines) is shifting of utilities, such as electrical lines, water supply and sewage networks, and sewage connections. In such projects, the contractor is required to deal with each of the agencies involved, thereby causing significant cost and time overruns.
Another key problem is that the lessons learnt from execution of successfully completed projects are not being applied for upcoming projects. Inadequate design and incorrect choice of construction technique and methodology remain legacy issues in building elevated structures in the country.
In the times ahead, introduction of strict punitive measures for building unsafe structures is imperative. Innovations in design and construction techniques, out-of-the-box thinking, and adaptation of global best practices to Indian conditions (of equipment as well as construction methods) hold much promise.
Steps should be taken to reduce the time required in shifting of utilities. For this, all concerned stakeholders should be brought on a common platform, monitored by one single authority. Besides, further momentum in digitalisation and mechanisation of key construction components will be a major enabler in building safe and reliable elevated structures in times ahead.