Mind the Crim­i­nal Gap

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Partha Pra­tim Biswas

The col­lapse of the Vivekananda Road fly­over in Kolkata last week has raised many se­ri­ous is­sues for the con­sid­er­a­tion of tech­nocrats and politi­cians. An in­quiry has al­ready been or­dered by the West Ben­gal gov­ern­ment to find out the causes of bridge fail­ure. It is ex­pected that the out­come of such find­ings would be ef­fec­tive for for­mu­lat­ing fu­ture guide­lines of con­struc­tion of el­e­vated roads in con­gested cities like Kolkata and sub­ur­ban ar­eas.

It is rel­e­vant to note that Kolkata, even though a ‘megac­ity’ — a metropoli­tan area with a pop­u­la­tion above 10 mil­lion — con­tains only 6.5% of its area as road space. This is too low a fig­ure to ac­com­mo­date the grow­ing trans­porta­tion needs of ur­ban­i­sa­tion. There­fore, the de­mand for con­struct­ing el­e­vated roads in the city is real and will in­crease in the fu­ture to im­prove in­tracity travel and trans­porta­tion.

With this back­drop, the con­struc­tion of fly­overs needs to hap­pen both at a quicker pace as well as in a safer mode us­ing mod­ern en­gi­neer­ing and man­age­ment skills. The im­me­di­ate re­sponse of the con­struc­tion com­pany that was re­spon­si­ble for the Vivekananda Road fly­over af­ter it col­lapsed was that it was an “act of god”. But do­main knowl­edge in the field of en­gi­neer­ing should re­veal that the fault lies in the busi­ness of men and men only. It was a man-made dis­as­ter.

In the ab­sence of ad­e­quate en­gi­neer­ing data, some rel­e­vant ques­tions can be raised. The project started in 2009 un­der the ad­min­is­tra­tive con­trol of the Kolkata Metropoli­tan Devel­op­ment Au­thor­ity (KMDA) with a com­ple­tion pe­riod of about two years. But af­ter 65 months, only two-third of the to­tal 2.2-km length of the fly­over was com­pleted, with sev­eral re­vi­sions of project com­ple­tion time.

The de­lay ap­pears due to change in the align­ment of the bridge’s su­per­struc­ture and un­der­ground util­ity ser­vices that were made a part of so­cioe­co­nomic and po­lit­i­cal pres­sures along with fi­nan­cial and man­age­rial prob­lems faced by the con­trac­tor. Un­der these cir­cum­stances, the in­ter­ven­tion of the gov­ern­ment to com­plete the project faster be­came vis­i­ble only when assem­bly elec­tions were knock­ing at the door. The con­trac­tor was asked to fin­ish the re­main­ing 24% of the project within seven months only.

Hardly a proper root-cause anal­y­sis was done to re­vise the changed tar­get date for project com­ple­tion. And therein lies the im­por­tant ques­tion: how was the con­trac­tor, clas­si­fied as a chronic de­faulter, deemed to have been ca­pa­ble of com­plet­ing the project with a sud­den project ac­cel­er­a­tion while ad­her­ing to qual­ity man­age­ment in a sen­si­tive in­fra­struc­ture project within a core city area? The ques­tion now be­com­ing more rel­e­vant is whether the main con­trac­tor, IVRSL, sub­con­tracted to a com­pe­tent ven­dor who both­ered to abide by the reg­u­la­tions to fin­ish the project in time.

The is­sue of project su­per­vi­sion in this case be­came sig­nif­i­cant when an in­jured con­struc­tion worker re­ported that dur­ing the ini­tial pe­riod of con­crete cast­ing, a bolt from a pier of the bridge was found to have come out from a joint. This was read­ily welded by the tech­ni­cians on-site and the con­cret­ing work was restarted im­me­di­ately. This was a self-de­struc­tive step.

The su­per­vi­sors should have re­alised the grav­ity of the en­gi­neer­ing prob­lem, a clear in­di­ca­tion of the fail­ure of the joints in the sys­tem as a whole. The de­ci­sion to go ahead and weld the joints was wrong and should have been avoided at that stage.

It also ap­pears from the pho­to­graphs that the twin arms of the dam­aged pier buck­led ow­ing to struc­tural or ma­te­rial fail­ure un­der its own weight dur­ing con­struc­tion. The pos­si­ble rea­son for such dis­tress could have been in­ad­e­quate strength of the steel sec­tion where the pier meets its arms. It could have also been due to the shear­ing of bolts at joints. So, the strength of steel used in the pier and the in­ad­e­quacy of joints may be ma­jor fac­tors for the dis­as­ter.

The foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­cludes the de­sign de­tail­ing of struc­ture, the qual­ity of con­struc­tion ma­te­rial, the project man­age­ment and su­per­vi­sion is­sues. Be­sides the en­gi­neer­ing is­sue, the fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tion of project de­lay should also be kept in mind. Ma­jor de­lays in project ex­e­cu­tion re­sult in a huge in­crease in the cost of ma­te­ri­als, man­power, plants and equip­ment. The con­trac­tor of the doomed fly­over project, which was de­layed for six years, may have tried to com­pro­mise with the ma­te­ri­als and su­per­vi­sory man­power to op­ti­mise ex­e­cu­tion cost.

The gov­ern­ment and its nodal agen­cies must be at­ten­tive to avoid de­lays in project ex­e­cu­tion to save pub­lic money in waste­ful cost head as the es­ca­la­tion of the project value and the risk to lives of peo­ple can be min­imised.

The writer is pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of con­struc­tion en­gi­neer­ing, Ja­davpur Univer­sity, Kolkata

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