Improving Performance

A unique model for India’s construction industry

 G. Venkata Prasad, Director, Operations, Deep Foundations Institute of India

India needs to invest substantial capital in building robust infrastructure to become a $5 trillion economy by 2024. While this will be an arduous task, it can only be achieved if the economy is backed by a vibrant construction industry.

Current scenario

In the backdrop of infrastructure projects facing time and cost overruns, many construction players are stressed financially. According to the Annual Report 2018-19 of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, of over 1,400 infrastructure projects worth about Rs 18 trillion, 345 projects worth Rs 4.7 trillion have cost overruns of Rs 3.3 trillion (72 per cent of the original value), and 317 projects worth Rs 7.33 trillion have time overruns that run into years.

A review of the performance of key companies in the construction sector also brings clarity to the picture. A report by India Infrastructure Research, “Construction in India 2017 – Trends, Outlook and Projections (till 2022-23)”, presents an analysis of the financial performance of 42 listed contracting companies in 2015-16. (For the years that followed, the performance would not have been any better.) Razor-thin margins are prevalent across the sector, with only a handful of exceptions such as Larsen & Toubro (L&T).

Scope for improvement

That said, there is significant potential for improvement. Some of the ways in which this can be done are enhancing project execution competencies of contractors, giving weightage to contractors’ competencies instead of choosing the lowest bid, executing skill development programmes for workers/personnel, creating a conducive environment for deploying new technologies, and connecting students industry through a greater number of interactive programmes.

Some initiatives (especially with regard to skilling personnel) have been taken but improvement is not yet apparent. In 2014, the government established the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, putting a robust organisational structure in place to drive the Skill India Mission. Six years down the line, there is hardly any notable improvement.

Meanwhile, eight construction skill training institutes have been established to conduct three-month training programmes for tasks such as masonry, carpentry, bar bending, tile laying, painting, plumbing, electrical, welding, etc.

The Infrastructure Equipment Skill Council in Bengaluru is also running training programmes and certifying operators for all construction equipment and member organisations of the Indian Equipment Manufacturers Association.

However, these initiatives are clearly inadequate when seen in light of the unmet demand that is far from tapering off in the near future. Considering the estimated manpower requirement of 90 million by the year 2023 (Twelfth Five Year Plan projections), there is a need to train around 3 million workers per annum. At present, hardly 100,000 workers are skilled each year. This enormous gap plainly shows that developing a pool of skilled resources has been a low priority for many of the construction companies.

A unique model

In this backdrop, the Deep Foundations Institute (DFI) can prove to be a game changer. A US-based non-profit organisation, DFI has 4,000 members and over four decades of experience in advancing the design and construction of deep foundations by disseminating information to engineers, contractors, manufacturers (technology providers), and educators through publications, conferences, seminars and discussions. In India, DFI has taken the lead in catering to new technology requirements and skill training programmes corresponding to the Indian geo-foundation industry through a unique model that can be replicated.

DFI has relevant committees that produce state-of-the-art guidance documents, codes and specifications, and papers, and offer solutions to industry problems, both stand-alone and in collaboration with allied organisations. Members of these committees are drawn from consultants, contractors, suppliers and manufacturers, academia and owners to bring together multidisciplinary individuals and organisations to establish a common ground and develop a shared vision.

It is important to note that major infrastructure projects in India require special attention during the initial phase of work, which consists of geotechnical engineering and foundation construction. Contrary to requirements, this initial phase represents a small percentage of a project’s overall budget. Often, geological conditions are evaluated incorrectly, jeopardising structural safety.

Further, as infrastructure development continues at an increasing pace and as projects continue to become more complex, several shortcomings in the execution of foundation works have taken a severe toll on the successful completion of some projects due to costly delays and failures. Factors such as low utilisation of advanced technologies, low level of mechanisation, lack of technical expertise, and paucity of a skilled workforce are currently impacting the performance of the Indian geo-foundation industry.

To address these challenges, in 2013, a few prominent geotechnical engineering and foundation construction industry practitioners in the country came together to form DFI of India (DFII), a non-profit organisation with the vision and mission of supporting the growing needs of the Indian deep foundation construction industry through mutual collaboration. DFII was established as a local chapter of DFI. It has conducted nine annual conferences, and 20 seminars and workshops by partnering with various premier institutes to spread awareness about developments in the foundation industry. At present, DFII is taking a number of initiatives.

  • Continuous flight auger (CFA) pile technology: The CFA pile technology has a share of around 23 per cent in the global piling foundation works. To bring this technology to India, the DFII team has successfully implemented six trial piles of 600 mm diameter each to showcase the technology. A collaborative approach, several meetings and site visits rendered this possible. The findings and trial results have been well documented and will serve as a reference for the implementation of this technology in the future. Going forward, DFII plans to organise more workshops to showcase the success of the technology so as to increase its adoption in the country.
  • Geotechnical Lab Technicians Training Programme: To implement this programme, experts from leading organisations have come forward to be a part of the DFII committee. Ten meetings have been held over an 18-month period and draft course materials have been developed. DFII has signed a five-year MoU with the National Academy of Construction to train unemployed youth through the prepared course materials.

Approval is being sought from the National Skill Development Corporation as per guidelines of the National Skill Qualification Framework so that the certificate issued to the trained workforce is valid throughout the country. It will aid in securing financial grants from the concerned government departments. Large companies such as L&T can implement these approved programmes.

These efforts will pave the way for training 10,000 lab technicians who are currently employed by geotechnical agencies in the country. In the coming times, DFII will conduct skill training programmes for field supervisors, in addition to other education programmes, to establish good work practices.

Other programmes

The US Army Corps of Engineers and DFI have partnered to implement dam and levee safety programmes. The common goal is to enhance the safety of dams, levees and coastal area construction and rehabilitation projects to improve quality and safety while lowering project risk and cost. A similar model is under implementation by Chennai Metro Rail Limited in its second phase project. The institute is also planning to conduct several student programmes to groom future leaders in the Indian geo-foundation industry. DFII has also done the required groundwork to develop skill training programmes to train hydraulic piling rig operators and major foundation equipment contractors.

Going forward

DFII has many other technology and skill programmes to be implemented over the next  decade to achieve its mission of elevating the Indian geo-foundation industry level to global best standards. This model can be replicated in other areas to benefit the country’s construction sector.

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