A Few Hiccups!

June 29, 2024by Rajeev Hora9

Success is undoubtedly in the process, but the devil is lurking in the detail.

“Sir, there is no need to climb all the way up to inspect the water tank. It can be quite dangerous. I can assure you, it has all been built to specifications.”

Chinnaswamy was in no mood to heed to such unsolicited advice coming from the contractor. He had just been posted to the capital’s public works department after his home stint in Chennai.  Civil engineering was his passion turned profession. He was always looking forward to new challenges in the construction field.

Immediately on arrival, he had sent a ‘no-nonsense’ message to the local contractors. The note simply said that he would be undertaking personal site-visits to oversee the progress of all the projects. The massive water tank in the EWS part of the city was high on the priority list. The local MLA desperately wanted to inaugurate it before the elections. Well so be it. But for Chinnaswamy, the build-quality was utmost important.

The department supervisors under him had quickly realized that the new appointee was a man of utmost integrity. Even a subtle hint of bribery or under-the-table transaction would have invited his wrath.

And here was Chinnaswamy at the bottom, insisting on climbing some 200 steps on an under-construction site. The contractor had been forewarned by the staff that any suggestion regarding ‘oiling the system’ could bounce back badly.

Safety helmet in place, Chinnaswamy slowly commenced his upward march with the contractor in close tow. Exhausted by the time he reached the apex point, he was thankful for the bottle of water offered by a labourer working on the tank. As he went around the scaffolded structure, his trained eye could spot a dozen deficiencies in the first glance itself.

Shocked at his discovery, Chinnaswamy started yelling at the contractor for gross non-adherence to the standards. And suddenly totally out of the blue, the wooden plank on which he was standing, got displaced badly! A shocked and shaken Chinnaswamy reacted instinctively and hung on to the nearest pole for dear life.

A traumatized Chinnaswamy practically dangling up there and swearing in chaste Tamil was a sight to behold. The contractor and the workers around, came to his rescue cautiously and placed his feet on a firmer base. Sweating from all his brows, he gathered his breath slowly. He however could not remove the sneaking feeling from his mind that this was not an accident. As if someone had done this on purpose.

With no clear evidence in place, he kept his thoughts to himself. The contractor took him aside and gently whispered, “Sir, I had warned you that this could be dangerous. You should not take such risks in life. After all, you have a loving family to look after.”

As the story goes, Chinnaswamy applied for an immediate posting out on compassionate grounds the very next day. What happened to the contractor, or the water tank is anybody’s guess.

Relating to me this anecdote was a very senior civil engineer, Marathe who had seen it all from close quarters. He said, “Corruption is rampant in this field. In fact, it is totally organized.”

“10-12% of the bills which get cleared is devoted towards keeping people happy. The percentage for each member in the food chain is fixed and is delivered without even a demand being made. A person is considered honest if he does not ask ‘over and above’ the acceptable rate. No one dares to upset the system which has been fine-tuned over the years. In fact, this amount is added to the initial bid amount itself.”

 “The quid pro quo is simple. Look the other way when required and don’t be too nosy with testing and final acceptance. Just let the bills be passed in time.”

 I ask, “Then how come, so many of our structures are still standing if the quality is compromised?”

 “Very good question, I must say. We at the design office know that there will be material, supervision, and skill-level shortfalls in the construction stage. So, we opt for ‘over designing’. That means, say a structure which could easily stand by using 10 tons steel is designed with 20% more stuff.”

 I probed further, “What then happens when a structural failure does take place?”

 Marathe explained, “Inadequacies could be in design or in construction or in both. Post-failure investigation is a very elaborate process. Errors are generally of omission rather than of commission. Often, the guilty protagonists would have moved on in life or on to other projects. It is extremely difficult to pinpoint responsibility in such cases though not impossible.”

“Some junior level scapegoats can always be found. A few temporary suspensions to quell the public outcry is standard fare. After that, life resumes as normal, well as normal as it can be. The few lives lost along the way are compensated by the government by a dole of a few lakhs. Cynical it may sound, overall, it works out much cheaper.”

 “Look around you. Stinking sewages, overflowing stormwater drains, collapsing bridges, falling airport terminals, pot-holes in brand new roads! Each fiasco is a testimony to the corruption, apathy and indifference in the system.”

 “Over the years, things have gone from bad to worse. We fail to recognize that success is undoubtedly in the process, but the devil is lurking in the detail. Every infra-failure must lead to lessons being fed back into the system. Newer safety standards and better legislation must follow. That unfortunately does not happen. Moreover, a weak and ineffective judiciary is not able to prevent shoddy execution. Over time, a culture of poor quality and ‘chalta hai’ has become the norm.”

Bahadur, a contractor in the infra business for long, complains, “Our L1 system and corruption lies at the root of the problem. How can I deliver to ‘specs’ when there is always someone underquoting below the cost value? Anyone promising to deliver without taking shortcuts is telling a bloody lie. He is either a foolish novice or has political protection. Invariably, it is the latter as it makes it easier to wash the sins away.”

“Also, during election days, there is huge amount of time-pressure put on us as someone out there wants to take credit. Superfast delivery without making compromises is just not possible. Either way, my neck is always on the line. Not forgetting the additional private work that I am forced to do for getting my bills cleared. It is very tough business Sir!”

My fundamentals getting cleared, I realize it is only the economist who is probably getting happy with this rotten situation. Infra will have to be rebuilt at half the expected life and roads will be re-laid twice a year. The Indian growth story at 7-8% towards a multi-trillion economy continues unabated.

A few hiccups along the way probably don’t hurt enough to become an election issue.

Hurtfully looking for solutions,
Horax (Casper)

Postscript: I wonder who all are laughing their way to the bank while a poor Ola driver’s kin are making their way to the funeral pyre?

*All names protected.

 First published at seekmediation.com on 29/06/24.

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9 comments

  • Col S G

    June 29, 2024 at 11:00 am

    As always, hard hitting, truthful and very, very relevant. Unfortunately, we will all keep “hurtfully looking for solutions” while the real hurt continues.

    Reply

  • AVM C N Ranganath

    June 30, 2024 at 2:53 am

    The all pervasive reason for this state of affairs can be traced to our fatalistic outlook in life, ‘Jo likha hai wohi hota hai, use koi nahi tal sakta’. Everything in our life is divinely ordained. How can you or me change it? If one does wrong, our Karma will catch up but invariably it ihappens in our next life. Kal kisne dekha hai!

    Reply

  • Anil Tiwi

    June 30, 2024 at 4:01 am

    . My comments yesterday in another group after the T 1 roof collapse.
    👇👇👇👇👇

    ((Just see around.. There is cheating, corruption in every sphere. Trend is to make money at the fastest and unscrupulously @ every level.
    Government clearances on fake documents from builders. . Most Serious issue being of Fire clearances.
    Combine this with unprecedented weather etc…
    Results yehi honge bhai… Each & every time.
    The other point is.. In construction Aesthetic beauty has become more important than structural strength & being sturdy etc.
    Giving to L1 is another big issue.))

    Any hope @ the end of the tunnel.. Well my guess is as good as yours.
    🙏🙏🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️💐💐

    Reply

  • Uday Singh Chauhan

    June 30, 2024 at 4:10 am

    When L1 came to existence by honourable Pranab Mukharjee ji.
    Our DG Artillery during tea break casually asked hope we have read new procurement policy which has been revised. Since I was junior most as Major pointed towards me.
    My answer was L 1 will compromise the quality of equipment in Army, he further proded how. I being from typical village back ground stated. Sasta roye Baar baar Mehnga roye ek baar. The repair cost of cheap material shall go up but not bribe.

    Reply

  • Maj Gen Anil Chaudhary

    June 30, 2024 at 5:28 am

    Well said Rajeev.
    It is upto the system to empower the Chennaswamis to execute their task fearlessly. They are the soldiers on ground. If we want to pursue our dreams to be a world power, we have raised our character.
    May God give them wisdom.

    Reply

  • Anurag

    June 30, 2024 at 10:15 am

    If it was L1 Bidder, TAJ MAHAL would not have been build.

    Each grand structure needs some vision, some grandiose, but our archaic regulations or rather over-regulations sometimes are the places for the below the table deals.

    Cost, aesthetics and safety… that’s the criteria today!

    This concept needs to be put in reverse for a ‘Viksit Bharat’ .

    Sir as usual : The bitter truth laid bare, as sweetly as possible. 😊

    Reply

  • Pradeep H

    July 1, 2024 at 3:40 am

    Hi
    This subject of failures is very close to my heart n have worked for many years on these.
    You must have heard the story of many blind persons were asked to touch various parts of an elephant’s body.
    Everyone came out with different perception.
    We look civil engineering failure in one box or the other.
    Engineering is the end product of DESIGN + CONSTRUCTION + OPERATION, a live function to be reviewed and revised.
    We in India don’t look the project as a whole n don’t care or we don’t know the aspects of other’s field n involvement. Not in my backyard kind of approach.
    Corruption is not only at construction stage but at all phases of engineering. Consultants are not paid enough besides their knowledge n experience.
    Contractor are chosen on political considerations.
    Maintenance is out of question.
    Besides the kind of engineers are being produced in institutions where there are not good faculty with outdated curriculum.
    Another factor is computerisation with all the pull down menus, a fresher is asked to design structure to cut on costs. Results are evident. This is not only in India but worldwide problem.
    Corruption is only one aspect . Every engineer wants a government job. You know why😊
    I can keep on going on this subject.

    Reply

  • Maj Gen Sudhakarjee

    July 1, 2024 at 3:44 am

    Very well articulated. India has to make Chinnaswamy like heroes in the country as the nation prepares to spend > $1.43 Trillion USD in infra in next five years.
    You have made a great point of the ….the devil is lurking in details..,,

    OODA loop is as much relevant to Armed Forces of any country as to anything else and anywhere. The feedback is very important to keep the loop alive.

    “ Inspect all, suspect all and respect all “ should be the national mantra.

    “ Prepare and prevent; repair and repent” should also become an eternal reminder to every Indian towards a new way of life and a cultural revolution.

    Wishing you many more. Proud of you brother as always.👍👏👏👏👍

    Reply

  • Amit RJ

    July 1, 2024 at 1:37 pm

    Good Day Sir! I read your post. It is a reminder as to what ails the country and slows down its progress.

    Somewhere a long stint of the Soviet inspired planned economy model that lasted into the mid 80s left our countrymen becoming creative in ways to make quick money. Low productivity led to low wages, shortage or long wait times for essential trappings of a modern life… leading people to find ways to jump the queue. To jump the queue requires money, for which inventiveness is necessary.

    The economic barriers to prosperity have come down in the last 35 years, but the psyche to make more moolah is now in our epigenetics.

    Where does the answer to all this lie? I think it lies in robust systems to record and report. Chinnaswamy need not have to express his dis- pleasure to the contractor. Instead he needs to have a system available to him in the field where he can record and report. He need not be a face well known to the building community, instead he be one of a cadre of few 100 civil engineers who get randomly sent (travel to other city) to sites to inspect and report.

    Graft needs to be called out in TV commercials, YouTube commercials, before the movie plays in cinema, when India’s T20 match is on the line and elsewhere to imprint that giving and taking bribes is wrong, is immoral and is like cheating your own mother.

    The message needs to be hammered in.

    Congratulations! On the T20 WC win. 🏆 I came to know through instagram. The world of cricket is expanding as evidenced by beyond expectations performances by the USA (successful story of immigrant led positive change) and Afghanistan (refugee Afghans who developed their game in the camps of Peshawar).

    Reply

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