Citizens' Issues
Infrastructure or infra-fracture: Saga of never ending accidents

It is high time that the Indian government wake up to this grim reality that is not only resulting in delay in project executions but has been causing loss of lives as well

In last week’s accident, at least one person was killed and five others were injured when a slab of the under-construction monorail project crashed in a slum area at Wadala East in Mumbai, on the night of 19 July 2012. This has, once again, brought into focus the appalling safety standards, or the lack of it. It would not be out of place to mention the recent fire disaster at Mantralaya, at the seat of power of the Maharashtra government, but no lesson seems to have been learnt.

 
From Independence till very recently India has been referred to as a third world country, or an under-developed country, and no surprises about that. It is only with the advent of economic liberalisation and globalisation that commenced in 1991, which gradually saw our country shift from a third world country to an ‘emerging’ economy. With more and more investors in different parts of the world, especially troubled developed economies, seeking to have slice of the Indian pie, India has been the toast of foreign investors.
 
A country aspiring to have speedy growth and development has to pay great attention to creating the requisite infrastructure. However, one of the factors that distinguish a developed country from an emerging economy is not just the class, quality and spread of infrastructure but the standards of safety. Hence, in her desire to speed up development, India has attempted to modernise by providing latest world-class infrastructure as far as transportation is concerned. As a result, massive projects were announced in different cities ranging from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Jaipur, and so on. Several Indian cities are currently in different stages of implementation of infrastructure projects to meet the transportation needs of the rapidly growing urban populace. While the Kolkata metro came up a long time ago, the Delhi Metro that came up in recent years was held as a model of infrastructural excellence, in terms of execution. Unfortunately, after the initial phase of the Delhi Metro, almost all the metro and monorail projects across the country, including Delhi, have experienced disasters from time to time.
 
It is not that India lacks technical skills or competence, but the issue seems to be much deeper. In developed countries safety is a matter of serious concern while in India, with our ‘chalta hai’ attitude and the habit of cutting corners, we have been courting disasters almost as frequently to never-ending saas bahu serials on Indian television. What also cannot be discounted is the role corruption plays that downgrade safety standards.
 
In the context of the construction industry, including implementation of giant projects like the metro and the monorail, unorganised labour plays a vital in actual execution of such projects. The construction sector employs around 10 million people, and it is reported that the rate of fatal accidents in the sector is four to five times that of the manufacturing sector. 
 
Many infrastructure-related disasters have taken place across India over the past few years, apart from the last week’s Mumbai mono rail disaster at Wadala. Let us examine a few. 
On 25 March 2012, six people died and 18 others were injured when an under-construction bridge over the Alaknanda River collapsed near Srinagar, in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district. Similarly, earlier on 29 October 2011, a footbridge spanning a river in northeast India collapsed and, according to the police nearly 30 people were feared drowned.
 
Another footbridge, which was under construction, over the Barapullah flyover leading to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main Commonwealth Games venue in Delhi, collapsed on the afternoon of 22 September 2010. It was reported that 27 labourers were injured in the incident and few of them lost their lives.
 
A vital bridge constructed in 2009 by the Border Roads Organization’s Deepak Project, near Basantpur in Shimla on the strategic all-weather road for connectivity to the India-Tibet border collapsed on 30 July 2010. The road was used for transporting apples from Shimla and Kinnaur districts. In another case, a bridge over the Chambal River collapsed on the Kota-Udaipur highway on Christmas day of 2009, in which four people were killed and several others were trapped underneath the bridge.
 
To think that such things happen only in far off places away from the maddening crowds— think again; a water pipeline bridge collapsed on a train passing underneath in a Mumbai suburb on 23 October 2009. Yes, it was a double whammy as the passengers in the train became victims with two killed and several other injured.
 
On 13 July 2009, the crash that sent shock waves across the country, and more particularly amongst the top bosses of the government, was when five workers and a site engineer were killed along with 15 injured when a massive girder crashed down at a Delhi metro rail construction site in South Delhi. 
 
The year 2008 witnessed three major disasters. An under-construction bridge in Uri, situated west of Srinagar, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, collapsed and killed several persons. Second, an under-construction bridge on Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad National Highway collapsed too. Lastly but not the least, an accident that took place in on 19 October 2008, at a section of the Delhi Metro in the eastern part of the city, killed a person and injured several others. 
 
Lastly, how could one forget a major disaster, that struck on 10 September 2007, when at least 15 people were killed with several injured, when a flyover collapsed in one of the busiest areas of Hyderabad, a city that is modernising at great speed. 
 
Even the metro at Bengaluru has witnessed several big and small accidents at different locations in the city.
 
So the question that remains unanswered is why are construction accidents are so common in India with frequent crashes in different parts of the country from time to time?
 
It is not that Indian talent is any way inferior or less competent than their counterparts in developed countries. If at all, we churn out world-class engineers. The usual suspects for below par performance—deep and prevalent corruption, poor safety standards, weak accountability laws and never ending red-tape.
 
It is high time that the Indian government wake up to this grim reality which is not only resulting in delay in the execution of numerous important projects across the country, but has been causing loss of lives as well. At the same time it also conveys a very poor image of Indian engineers and workers which they don’t deserve.
 
(Dr SD Israni, advocate & partner, SD Israni Law Chambers, is one of India’s leading authority on corporate, commercial and securities laws. He was a member of the Naresh Chandra Committee for simplification of Company Law relating to private and small companies. He has been on SEBI's committee on disclosures (called the Malegam Committee) and the one on buy-back of shares. Dr Israni has been a member of the Legal Affairs Committee of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Indian Merchants' Chamber and Indian Council of Arbitration. Dr Israni is an active member of the Institute of Company Secretaries of India and was on its Central Council for four terms and headed the Capital Markets Committee of the ICSI.)

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Power ‘less’ situation continues: Struggles over stumbling blocks!

With the power situation continuing to remain grim, the ministries ought to come together to remove the hindrances that prevent the exploitation of resources for gainful purposes

Instead of getting enhanced power supply, what appears is the ‘power’ struggles that goes on in ministries which act as stumbling blocks in giving clearances for work to progress!
 
It may be recalled that between 2004 and 2009 some 64 coal blocks were allotted to private parties. A public outcry for not following standard procedures resulted in CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) investigations, called a “preliminary probe” and this shows that None of the allottees have really started any work at site—which means we have made no material progress in eight years! What is surprising, however, is that many of the allottees are major blue chip companies!
 
Now this perhaps needs another set of ‘study’ as to what prompted the allotment and what has prevented any work from being done and, in the national interest why not the government  take punitive measures against the allottees for not ‘delivering’ the goods? Does this all look like the dog in the manger policy of the privileged few?
 
For a moment, let us turn our attention to CBM (coal bed methane), which is currently produced in the USA, Canada and Australia. China, Indonesia and India are the new entrants in the field, with India's Great Eastern Energy Corporation (GECL) being the first to explore for CBM.  Now what is their problem, if any?
 
CBM can be extracted from virgin coal mines. Though the Product Sharing Contract (PSC) was signed in September 2010 by GEECL, which permits them to conduct pilot assessment surveys for three years, no work has actually be done so far in the last one and half years. Why? The ministry of environment & forests (MoEF) has not yet given the necessary clearance. Are they hard-pressed, over-worked and understaffed? Perhaps.
 
Work on CBM in India is still in its infancy due to above reasons.
 
Yogendra Kumar Modi, chairman of GEECL, laments that instead of permitting this loss of precious lead time, the MOEF should have given them interim permission to drill a few holes, take out samples and carry out lab tests to assess the gas potential.
 
Looks like MOEF wants to put the cart before the horse? After all if gas is found in viable quantity and quality, the necessary environmental requirements can be complied. Thus, the work at Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu has not even started, as a result.
 
Now, let us take a look at the progress made, if any, at CMM, which is coal mine methane, found on the surface of the mines and may be extracted along with coal. This process is relatively less expensive than CBM.
 
Fortunately, the tug-of-war between coal and petroleum ministries is now over, with the latter permitting Coal India to extract CMM but it will decide later on the price, commercialization and allocation pattern for the same.  CMM can be gainfully utilised by captive power units installed at head of pit mines.  However, for reasons unknown CIL have not received permission to extract CMM from the five blocks in lease-held properties, and it is hoped that this matter will be reviewed in due course.
 
We know that imported coal is expensive but indigenous coal producers have various problems to overcome. Coal India alone has some 102 proposals pending with the MOEF awaiting various types of clearances with 25 of them in the final stage.  It is now apparent that this ministry has such a large backlog, perhaps to shortage of qualified manpower and related constraints.
 
To overcome process delays, the Charturvedi Committee had earlier proposed that miners be allowed to bore holes with a 15-20 per sq km density rather than the current stipulation of 1.5 to 2. This proposal is under review so that some relaxations may be granted.
 
Meanwhile, Coal India has offered some 70 million tonnes of pit head stocks over and above the FSA commitments; Sterlite Industries, Adani Power and China Light & Power have shown keen interest in this offer.
 
Coal India is also planning to associate with the Indian Railways in expeditious movement of coal from pit heads. It is time that Railways themselves come forward with a workable solution to lay dedicated coal transport lines from pit heads to power generating points. They need to consider the possibility of re-scheduling the rail-track usage timings so that cargo can be on the move, even if with some interruptions at night and we can overcome the power shortages.
 
The ball, now, is in the railway ministry’s court.

(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)

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