Efficiency of construction equipment, along with adequate availability of resources such as labour and raw materials, plays a key role in ensuring timely project implementation in the road sector. While the Covid-19 pandemic has hit construction activities, it has also created opportunities for the government and contractors to adopt digitalisation.
At a recent webinar on “Timely and Cost-Effective Road Project Completion” organised by India Infrastructure, Shashi Bhushan, general manager, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI); R.K. Bansal, vice president and head, Roads and Runways Business, L&T Construction; Sudhir Jain, vice president, technical, H.G. Infra Engineering Limited; and Rahul Agarwal, senior manager, Eicher Trucks and Buses, shared their perspective on the need for digitalisation and technological upgradation in light of the pandemic and the key parameters essential for timely project completion. Excerpts…
Construction activities in the road sector have suffered a lot amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Even after the government allowed partial resumption of construction work during the lockdown, labour migration impacted the work. NHAI has been helping state authorities in getting the labour back to the construction sites. The authority has also issued numerous guidelines to ensure liquidity in the construction industry, including the release of performance guarantee amounts, release of retention money and early payment to contractors through relaxation in contract agreements. Till September 2020, NHAI had awarded about 5,000 km of projects in this fiscal year, as against the target of awarding 6,400 km during the period. Similarly, as against the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways target of constructing 4,000 km, the achievement has been about 3,900 km.
The government has accorded freedom to concessionaires to deploy suitable equipment and innovative construction technologies. A 36 metre paver, the first of its kind in the country, has been used for the Vadodara-Mumbai Expressway project. The ongoing pandemic also provided the authority with the opportunity to innovate and go digital. While NHAI has already been encouraging digitalisation of the tolling system through FASTag, the pandemic has also encouraged it to shift completely to an e-office system. Besides, arbitration proceedings are also being conducted through video-conferences, and this has significantly improved the authority’s productivity.
Over time, there has been an improvement in project implementation. Earlier, multiple parties used to be involved in the execution of various activities, which has now been streamlined. Besides, NHAI has been taking the necessary steps to identify gaps in project implementation and address them in a timely manner. However, some challenges still remain. NHAI has gone fully digital with Datalake, which has also improved monitoring and transparency. Earlier, payments to land beneficiaries were being made through RTGS or real-time gross settlement, but are now being made through net banking and digital platforms. The authority plans to do away with paperwork completely in the coming months. However, issues pertaining to utility shifting, design issues, rail overbridge (RoB) approvals and mining permissions continue to hamper project implementation. NHAI has now made a conscious decision to make utility shifting a part of the concession agreements and has been working with the state governments to resolve issues with mining approvals.
Covid-19 has had a strong impact on the road industry. While large-scale labour migration has been a huge challenge, we have now reached almost 100 per cent labour availability at construction sites. However, despite labour availability, the productivity of construction workers has been impacted by 15-20 per cent, due to the necessary safety and distancing measures that need to be taken at project sites.
L&T has been making use of digital technology in construction for a long time now. The company has been maintaining its workmen record digitally. With the help of digital records, it is able to retrieve the contacts of workmen who previously worked with the firm to provide the necessary labour supply and maintain productivity levels at the same time. Besides, almost 100 per cent the company’s equipment has been digitally connected, and this has helped the firm in tracking the duration of equipment deployment and fuel consumption. We have a control room at each of our project sites which continuously monitors the digital data. Besides, we have a central control room for conducting regular data analysis of the digital information from the project sites. For fuel efficiency, we review the baselines almost every year and make the necessary modifications. Fuel efficiency has been improving over the past few years.
Although we do not hire many sub-contractors, when we do we ensure that we install the same digital systems on any equipment brought in by the subcontractors as we install on our in-house equipment. We have adapted ourselves to the Covid-19 scenario, with most of our training programmes and review meetings being conducted online. We will continue with the new digital initiatives even post the pandemic. In the case of plants, our endeavour is always to have 100 per cent availability and zero downtime, especially for big plants such as batching or hot mix plants. Apart from this, with earthwork equipment such as tippers and rollers, a certain amount of downtime is always expected. While we aim to minimise the unscheduled downtime, we also put in effort to ensure scheduled maintenance. However, despite the efforts, there is still about 5 per cent downtime for such equipment. Meanwhile, all our equipment has been GPS enabled now. Data analytics has helped us in analysing the equipment running time and capacity utilisation.
With respect to the workforce, the labour engaged in unskilled activities usually stays for about a year. On the other hand, skilled labourers like operators, drivers, mechanics, electricians and supervisors stay with us for much longer time periods. Design approval and availability of natural resources plays a key role in ensuring timely implementation of road construction projects. Lack of availability of skilled manpower is another challenge that we are trying to overcome.
The Covid-19-induced lockdown came during the peak working season when projects were progressing at a fast pace. Bringing the labour back from their home towns has been a huge challenge for us, considering their unwillingness to come back and the cost impact of bringing them back from remote regions and providing them with the necessary facilities. Besides, labour productivity has also been impacted. Overall productivity levels went down to 25-30 per cent in the initial phases of the lockdown.
In order to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and improve our productivity, we have returned to our earlier models and systems, and this has helped us bring back the construction workers. In the road construction industry, the highway part is already mechanised, so the labour requirement is more for the structural works. We have enhanced labour working hours to compensate for the additional cost incurred in bringing back the labour.
We measure the efficiency of our equipment on the basis of working hours and output of the equipment. The data on equipment productivity and fuel consumption is regularly recorded and mapped on a SAP system.
Road construction in the country has improved in terms of better mechanisation and digitalisation of equipment. Tippers are now being geotagged, fuel consumption of equipment is being monitored, and productivity has improved. Besides, the time taken for preparation of detailed project reports has also reduced over time. While a lot of transport equipment is now being GPS tagged, this sometimes faces resistance from the drivers. Apart from that, all the improvements in equipment efficiency have been smooth and highly welcome. For timely project implementation, getting timely approvals for design drawings is necessary. Apart from this, the availability and timely clearance of resources such as aggregates also plays an important role. Getting clearances for RoBs also takes a lot of time and poses challenges to project implementation.
Tipper trucks are being used across the value chain in road construction. As a result, transportation cost is an important parameter, accounting 15-25 per cent of the road work. Thus, fuel efficiency plays an important role in the choice of the transport equipment used for road projects. Besides, about three-fourths of the cost involved in tipper trucks is the operation and maintenance cost, of which about 60 per cent is for fuel.
Almost every road contractor has suffered from implementation delays amid the pandemic due to labour and material shortages. In addition, approval delays from various authorities and issues with availability of aggregates continue to hamper timely completion of road projects. Digitalisation initiatives and GPStagging of transportation vehicles has been of great help in improving the productivity of equipment. The government has also provided relief to contractors during the pandemic to grant them the much-needed liquidity. Going forward, even after the pandemic is over, the government as well as contractors are planning to continue with productivity-enhancing technologies and digitalisation initiatives that they have adopted.