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In Bad Shape | Can India adopt international practices & improve the quality of its infrastructure?

Indian projects are constructed at a fraction of the cost of what something similar costs in a developed nation. Nonetheless, changing our bid selection process and a different testing process testing would help.

November 25, 2022 / 08:45 PM IST
As part of Moneycontrol’s In Bad Shape series, in this story we benchmark the quality standards followed in India with the best practices followed across the world. (Representative Image)

As part of Moneycontrol’s In Bad Shape series, in this story we benchmark the quality standards followed in India with the best practices followed across the world. (Representative Image)

The quality of Indian infrastructure often hits the headlines for the wrong reasons. It is deemed inferior compared to global standards, and there is growing perception within the country that the administration may not be capable of meeting the requirements of a growing economy and populace.

As part of Moneycontrol’s In Bad Shape series, in this story we benchmark the quality standards followed in India with the best practices followed across the world.

Quality standards, or design standards, define the best practices that are to be followed when designing, choosing the material, and constructing an infrastructure project.

For example, the Indian Road Congress (IRC) has laid down the standards that must be followed, and the materials that must be used, when building roads in different areas with different climatic conditions.

Are Indian standards different from international standards?

India typically follows globally accepted standards. It follows standards laid down by bodies like the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), etc.

The Indian government adopts standards laid down by statutory bodies such as the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). While the BIS in turn adopts ISO and IEC standards, among others, the Indian government also adopts standards developed by various national bodies. Some of these are private entities such as the IRC, which prescribe their own standards.

However, the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) has said in its report titled ‘Regulating Infrastructure Development in India,’ that the current framework allows for gaps and overlaps in standards.

“There are overlapping codes for laying the foundation of a bridge. Where a bridge accommodates both a road as well as a railway, developers can adopt either standard,” the NIPFP report said.

Similarly, comprehensive codes do not exist for things like precast concrete building standards and ductile detailing (when constructing a bridge), the NIPFP had said, adding that these codes need to be created or adopted.

Precast concrete is the process of creating concrete structures away from the construction site and then incorporating the element within the structure. Ductile detailing is the process by which structures are made durable and ductile enough to be able to resist severe earthquake shocks without collapsing.

The autonomous research institute also noted that while proposed standards need to be widely circulated for public comments before being adopted, the provision can be waived when “the matter is urgent or non-controversial,” which is not a practice followed in most developed countries.

Why are international standards not adopted in India?

Countries define and adopt infrastructure standards based on their climatic and socio-economic conditions. Hence, what may be applicable in Germany, for instance, may not be applicable or affordable here.

On the other hand, “Indian standards have gained global acceptance. Issues surrounding the quality of materials used in construction have been addressed as cheap imports have been throttled for five years now,” an IRC official said.

He added that India was in the process of adopting steel slag technology for the construction of roads instead of concrete, and will likely codify this standard in a few years.

At the moment most Indian roads are made using concrete due to the lower availability and higher cost of steel slag.

Another IRC official said that for the price point at which we build roads in this country, India has some of the highest quality and safety standards in the world.

Last year, other countries with similar climatic / socio-economic conditions had approached the BIS for help with standards and quality related solutions.

Countries like Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Suriname, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Slovenia had approached the BIS for help with standardisation conformity assessment, the government had said.

The second IRC official added that most roads built under public-private partnerships in India meet the highest standards of safety and quality.

While Indian standards may be well defined, execution is a problem.

“Many of the design standards and codes that are being followed in road safety are borrowed from Europe. However, unlike global practices, there are no guidelines for deviation from standards, the impact of deviation on safety, and the deviation mitigation methods followed,” Mazen Khalifa, Senior Project Manager at AECOM, told Moneycontrol.

Similarly, Manoj Jain, GM, Roads, at Surbana Jurong, said that the process for developing infrastructure standards is not consistent across the standard setting bodies in India.

“As a result, the quality and appropriateness of the standards themselves is questionable at times,” Jain added.

AECOM is an American infrastructure consulting firm, while Surbana Jurong is a Singaporean infrastructure consultancy company.

Huge cost difference

A major reason why infrastructure projects in India lag behind the quality of construction in foreign countries is due to the budgetary constraints India faces.

"Standards followed in India are comparable with the standards followed in other countries using the same construction material. Foreign countries tend to use more expensive material to add some desired quality features," the first IRC official said.

Historically, infrastructure projects in India have been developed with a cost-first approach rather than a quality-first approach.

Vinayak Chatterjee, Founder and Managing Trustee, The Infravision Foundation, told Moneycontrol that developed nations tend to spend a lot more on engineering materials, equipment, labour, etc., compared to India when developing infrastructure projects.

"India is a much poorer country, we don't have the ability to hire the best consultants, best firms, and not consider the lowest bidder when making infrastructure projects. We try to do projects with far greater limitations due to limited budgets," Chatterjee added.

According to RK Pandey, Member, Projects, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) the cost of construction of a four lane national highway in India is about Rs 25-26 crore per kilometre.

The cost of constructing a four-lane, undivided road in the US is anywhere between $6-10 million (Rs 47-80 crore) per kilometre, Khalifa said.

Similarly, the cost of building a four-lane, undivided road in comes to around $5-7 million (Rs 40-60 crore) per kilometre, Jain said.

Likewise, phase-III of the Delhi metro cost about Rs 552 crore per kilometre. Singapore’s downtown metro line, launched in 2017, is estimated to have cost around $490 million (roughly Rs 4,000 crore) per kilometre. The Dubai metro is estimated to have cost around $80-85 million (Rs 650-700 crore) per kilometre.

How can India have international standards?

Vinayak Chatterjee said that India can adopt best practices from developed nations in order to improve its infrastructure standards.

“Quality tests of roads under construction should be carried out by quality assessment engineers appointed by the authority commissioning the project and not by the developer,” Chatterjee said.

He added that the practice of awarding projects under the quality-cum-cost-based-selection (QCBS) method should be adopted for all projects across the country.

In November last year, the union government adopted the QCBS system for public work projects. However, the L1 — or least cost —method is still followed for the selection of bidders to execute most infrastructure projects, as also for procurement of materials.

Ajay Alshetty, MD, Nirvayam Engineering, said that the problem of quality standards not being followed in India could be resolved by taking a cue from the US.

"In the US, there is something called ‘Departure from Standards.’ This assigns liability in such cases either to the construction firm, the police, the government, the designer, or the contractor," Alshetty said.

He added that an effort is made to minimise risk by having top-of-the-line practices in place, and if something is left out, the responsibility for the same is assigned to the operations side completely. "A similar mechanism needs to be implemented here," he added.
Yaruqhullah Khan