Innovative Approach: EPC contractors’ perspective on irrigation projects in India

Irrigation area coverage in India has increa­sed from around 17 per cent of the net sown area at the time of Independence to around 50 per cent at present. This has been possible with the increased uptake of irrigation projects and their upgradation with new techniques and methods. Many of these projects are initiated by the government under mega lift irrigation schemes and river interlinking. They are majorly being executed by contractors under engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) mode. The objective of these projects is bulk supply of large quantities of water to the irrigated areas, to enable micro-irrigation and technology innovations in the execution phase. How­ev­er, several challenges are faced by EPC contractors in this process. These are related to cost and time overruns, delayed approvals, complex land acquisition process, etc.

Indian Infrastructure discusses some of the new practices being undertaken by EPC contractors in irrigation projects, challenges faced, their recommendations and the future potential…

Innovations in irrigation projects

Irrigation projects in India are rapidly adopting piped network infrastructure. This network primarily has two important components – pumps re­quired for lifting and intake of water and pipelines. The intake of water is done with hea­vy vertical pumps, which are then carried thro­u­gh a main trunk pipeline and distributed thro­ugh tra­nsmission or branch pipelines of various sizes between 700 and 800 mm diameter. Efforts are being made by EPC contractors to improve the nature of these pipelines and pu­mps across their irrigation projects. To this end, Larsen & Toubro (L&T) Construction is working with a pipeline diameter of 3.1 metres, which is further expected to be increased to 4 metres. The bra­nch lines of the network are planned to be made of high density polyethylene, which will carry water to an area of 1 to 2.5 hectares bas­ed on the requirement of the project. Further­more, variable frequency drive (VFD)-based pumps are also being used, which optimise the power consumption by adjusting the flow or pressure of water based on the actual water demand. VFD pumps are being used by irrigation contractors such as Amrutha Construc­ti­o­ns Private Limited in most of their irrigation pro­jects in Karnataka and Telangana. They have successfully reduced the projects’ energy consumption through their uptake. This has ultimately helped them reduce their operational costs.

Moreover, new technologies are also being integrated by these contractors at various sta­ges of these projects. For instance, light detec­tion and ranging (LiDAR) technology is being us­ed for modernising and enhancing the pro­cess of survey of land to be irrigated. Large are­as of land are surveyed within two to three we­eks’ time through this method. Similarly, supervisory control and data acquisition is also being integrated into operations of irrigation projects. This automation system has allowed contractors to single-handedly manage the quantum of water to be supplied to large land parcels. It also helps in assessing the performance of the projects for further improvement by evaluating the amount of energy consumed and water supplied against the production by farmers.

Issues and challenges faced

The timely completion of most of the irrigation projects is impacted by the major challenge of the lack of funding, resulting in cost and time overruns. In fact, at present, there is a cost overrun of Rs 1.2 trillion in major and medium irrigation projects in India and around 105 projects faced time overrun to the tune of 18 years. All the irrigation projects are funded by the government and face the issue of the timely flow of funds with changing priorities and budget allocations by different governments in power. This hinders the working capital management of ongoing projects. The funds in many of the states in south India have been directed to other sectors in the past two years, which has led to the deceleration of irrigation projects in the region. However, Gujarat has witnessed consistent spending on irrigation projects with proper budget allocation to the sector.

Besides, the process of land acquisition is very complex as it involves dealing with the rightful interests of the beneficiaries such as farmers. This is further hindered by the long time taken for achieving forest and environme­ntal clearances. It varies from 6 to 18 months or more, which affects the design process as well. The design has to be changed to compensate for the acquired area. Moreover, the cost of the project changes with deflections in the scope of work on ground, which is different from the estimated cost at the pre-bidding sta­ge. This cost implication is borne by the EPC contractors. A ceiling limit has also been set on the cost of turnkey projects, with limited quality-driven companies to bid for these projects.

Recommendations for improving projects

There are several ways to mitigate the challenges faced during the execution of irrigation projects. These include ensuring cost estimates that are all-inclusive and accommodate contingencies and attainment of approvals and land acquisition before the award of the contract. The district administration must also collaborate with state departments and local land administration bodies to jointly take the decision on land acquisition. There should also be a policy that mandates the completion of the project within a stipulated time, regardless of change of government.

Furthermore, the gap among multiple contract systems adopted by different states has to be narrowed. There should be neutrality with respect to the contract conditions to accelerate the projects, with the implementation similar to that of FIDIC and the new engineering contracts of the UK. These set conditions can be slightly paraphrased with respect to the Indian requirements for the benefit of the concessionaire and the contractor of the project. Any un­foreseen deflections in project costs must not be borne solely by the contractors. There should be a proper risk-sharing structure to safeguard their returns from projects. Addit­io­nally, the adoption of technology has to be inc­reased based on local needs. Devices equip­ped with internet of things (IoT) must be used for rotational management of water in irrigation projects. These can be used to manoeuvre the yield by growing cash crops on the sa­me land used for regular farming. IoT devices can further change the flow of water to a particular field, with variations in time and season. However, their proper installation in fields, regular checking and longevity must be ensured to achieve the desired output. Contractors are the middlemen of implementation of irrigation projects and help farmers to get the best benefit by timely and quality delivery of projects. This can be made possible by innovating at various stages in the project implementation. One of the promising methods that can be taken up by various states in the future is the pressurised irrigation method. It allows the efficient flow of water to the destination and has been implemented by the Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat governments in large areas of their irrigation projects. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh, with its rich potential for water use can also deploy this method for achieving good irrigation output. Going forward, sustainable planned financing of these projects will also ensure their effective and timely completion.

Based on a panel discussion among Murali Mohan Murthy, General Manager (GM) and Head of Irrigation, North and West, L&T Construction; C. Ramanathan, Vice-President, Projects, Amrutha Constructions Private Limited, and Jyoti Prasad Reddy, Deputy GM, Planning and Monitoring, Irrigation, NCC, at a recent India Infrastructure conference