Decline of the Civil Engineering Profession in India
Shirish B Patel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a civil engineer and urban planner who was in charge of planning, design and execution in Navi Mumbai during its first five years.
The coal secretary recently blamed the “5Cs”– Central Vigilance Commission, Central Information Commission, Central Bureau of Investigation, Comptroller and Auditor General and the courts–for inhibiting quick and effective decision-making and impeding the country’s development. The steady and continuing decline of the civil engineering profession in India has its roots in policies mandated by the Comptroller and Auditor General in regard to the procurement of consultancy services.
The collapse of a flyover under construction in Kolkata on 31 March killed 26 people and injured 90. The flooding in Chennai in early December 2015 killed 280 and what was inexplicable was how long it took for the floods to recede. These disasters, and many more in recent years, illustrate their common root: the decline of the civil engineering profession in India, and the evolution of government procurement policies in regard to professional services that initiated and now increasingly accelerate this decline. These policies encourage the appointment of civil engineering professionals who quote the lowest fee, not those who can deliver the best outcomes.1 Contrast this with the way one would select a doctor or a lawyer or a chartered accountant.
What Is Civil Engineering?
Seventy years ago, at the time of independence, the top choice of young students entering engineering colleges was civil engineering; followed by mechanical, then electrical and finally metallurgical engineering. Today it is computer science, electronics, electrical engineering, followed by mechanical or metallurgical, with the last, least desired option being civil engineering. There is practically no student now for whom civil engineering is the first choice on entering an engineering college. No wonder that for nearly all graduates today civil engineering is a rite of passage into the job market, not a profession that inspires commitment or passion.
Before asking what has occasioned this amazing decline it might be worthwhile to spell out what civil engineering is all about. Earlier it was often concerned with “…directing the great forces of nature for the benefit of mankind,” which led to a preoccupation with dams, hydroelectric projects, irrigation canals and massive water supply schemes. But at all times, its central concern has been the totality of the built environment, including roads, railways, bridges, harbours and every conceivable kind of building, from a simple house to a skyscraper or a stadium. Respect for the natural environment was always an important concern, as can be seen from the design of so many bridges that are aesthetically pleasing and blend well into their surroundings.
An equally important goal in civil engineering is economy. It used to be said that a civil engineer can do for one rupee what any fool can do for two. Economy in project cost and economy in the use of raw materials are both fundamental objectives for a civil engineer.
Respect for the Environment
Civil engineering has many specialisations within it, like roads and railways, docks and harbours, bridges, tunnels, water supply, sewerage, drainage, structural engineering for buildings, among others. The most recent entrant to this diverse group is environmental engineering—a branch of civil engineering that deals with minimising any damage that may be caused to the natural environment by a particular construction project.
The best demonstration of this integration of environmental concerns with a major construction project is perhaps Hong Kong’s new Chek Lap Kok airport. Two small hilly islands, 25 km distant from the city’s downtown, were flattened and the rubble from cutting them was used to fill the space between. Connecting to the mainland for both high-speed rail and road traffic required two bridges and two tunnels and a six-lane expressway. In the context of all this massive work, extending over seven years, the Hong Kong government took several mitigation measures to keep the loss of wildlife and habitats at a minimum. Ecological studies of the local wetlands, seagrass beds, and mangrove communities were undertaken, resulting in the replanting of mangroves and woodlands and the relocation of a colony of Romer’s Tree Frogs (Howlett 1996).
The British Airports Authority provided airports expertise, but the entire design and engineering was entrusted to three private consulting firms.2 After 70 years of independence, there is no Indian design firm that could provide even a tiny fraction of the capability required for such a project. We need to ask ourselves why.
In-house vs Consultancy Skills
At independence, consulting firms in the field of civil engineering were few and tiny. There were some architectural practices, and small firms of structural engineers, with a handful of larger firms, rarely exceeding 100 personnel in size, providing services mainly to steel plants and big industry. The engineering knowhow was scattered among officers in government, who practised their skills almost entirely on their own turf, almost never being invited to apply these skills elsewhere in the country.
Typical among these was N V Modak, who was city engineer for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and in that capacity oversaw the construction of Vaitarna Dam (the lake is also called Modaksagar Lake) and the strengthening of Tansa Dam, both critical to the water supply of Mumbai. He also had expertise in sewage handling and garbage disposal, and reclamation of low-lying land. He published a book on town and country planning, co-authored with V N Ambedkar, and together with Albert Mayer published An Outline of a Master Plan for Greater Bombay. But his skills, however remarkable, remained confined to the area under the jurisdiction of his employer, the BMC. He, and the support team he must have inevitably built up, could serve no wider clientele.
Similarly, the Bombay Port Trust (BPT) engineers developed considerable expertise in the design and supervision of a variety of marine structures, from jetties to quay walls to dry docks and their gates. But that team and their skills were again confined to the area under the jurisdiction of their employer, the BPT. If BPT had decided to have an independent consultancy arm, it could have advised ports around the country. Certainly its officers had the necessary experience at that time, and could have trained their younger colleagues. Ideally, given the experience their design and supervision staff had, and given that the BPT had not much further immediate work in mind, it would have been ideal if the design and supervision staff had been hived off into an independently-managed consultancy firm. The merit of an external consultancy service over in-house skills is that the expertise acquired by the consultant can be extended to other projects elsewhere in the country or abroad, and this builds up their expertise further. Next time you want something done in-house, you have access to all the skills you had earlier, now further enhanced.
Good consulting firms are always those that protect their client’s interests, and keep this at the forefront of their minds. They act as if they were on the employees’ payroll of the client. In effect they are the client’s temporary, specialised professional arm in their particular area of expertise. They act on behalf of the client to protect his interests above all else—it is only on that basis that they can earn a reputation and attract not only new clients but also repeat clients, the older ones, who will come back to them again and again. Ideally—although this is not always found in practice—the consultant should put his client’s interests above his own, offering a better solution even if it means more work for himself.
There is one caveat to the primacy of the client in the mind of the consulting civil engineer. And this is that the ultimate client, the one that stands even above the one that is paying his fees, is the public. The interest of the public is paramount, and overrides everything else. So, for example, if a major new dry dock is to be built in South Mumbai, which is not a particularly sensible location from the point of view of inviting enemy attack to a concentration of both people and installations, nor is it economical compared to other locations in the country on account of the extensive reclamation required, then it behoves the responsible civil engineer to protest that such a project is against the national interest, instead of participating in the invitation to bid for the assignment.
Civil engineering consultancy fees are usually a tiny fraction of total project cost. The difference between a good consultant and an indifferent one will invariably reflect in life cycle costs for the project. This includes not just initial costs, which should anyway be close to the lowest possible, but also the repeat costs (and client headaches) on account of subsequent maintenance and repairs. The resulting savings in the project can sometimes far exceed the totality of the consultancy fee. If the consultant is well above average, the client will be rewarded not only with an economical and trouble-free project that functions well, but also one that is aesthetically pleasing.
When selecting a lawyer or a doctor, no client asks for competitive bidding, and then awards the work to the lowest bidder because a low fee is invariably, and correctly, associated with inferior service. When a client’s personal interests are at stake, he will always look for the best lawyer or doctor he can find within the fee that he is prepared to pay.
Contrast this with the way in which government organisations, and some private ones too, select their civil engineering consultants.
There is a faint nod in the direction of the notion that quality matters in professional services. The government agency responsible for a project can make a short list of approved consultants. And even among these there can be a ranking according to competence. This leads to the 80:20 formula, where 80 marks are assigned for technical competence, and only 20 to the financial bid. This looks eminently reasonable, and gives the impression that a high weightage is being given to quality. But in practice, the 80 marks are divided into so many for financial strength, so many for number of staff, so many for previous experience of such projects (regardless of whether you did a good or a bad job), and so many for the technical quality of the proposal. Anyone with less than 70 marks is ruled out. So the client is left with a short list of consultants who have technical marks within a very narrow range, generally between 70 and 80 marks, put together on merit plus a number of peripheral considerations.
Now we come to the financial bid. All bids are opened and the lowest bidder is given a mark of 20. Everyone else gets a mark depending on the ratio of his bid to that of the lowest bidder, multiplied by 20. Thus if someone quotes twice as much as the lowest bidder he will get 10 marks and someone who quotes higher will get even less. So if any competent professional puts in a bid with a perfectly reasonable fee, anyone else who has made it to the short list has only to quote half that amount and be assured of a 10-point advantage in the computation of marks. The underbidder will almost certainly get the job. To make ends meet he must then either (i) extract money from contractors because it is in his hands to certify their payment (and remember that implicit in this is some softening of quality control), or (ii) underpay his staff, or (iii) depend on novices, or (iv) cut corners in developing the design, the consequences of which will be, at the very least, to push up project costs, if not actually endanger the design. Whichever it is, the client gets an inferior design, and probably almost certainly spends much more on the project than he has saved on consulting fees through this process of selection.
Mixing financial bids with evaluation of merit is a sure way of ensuring that the best consultant will not be selected. The World Bank earlier had an excellent system of consultant selection. All those invited to bid were asked to submit their technical proposal and their financial bid in separate sealed envelopes. First, only all the technical proposals were opened. Selection was on merit alone, all aspects considered, usually by a committee. Then the financial bid of only the selected best consultant was opened. If negotiations with him concluded satisfactorily, then all the remaining financial bids were returned unopened. If negotiations failed, then the bid of the top ranked consultant was put aside, and the financial bid of the second-best was opened, with the clear understanding that the client could never go back to the first bidder. This ensured that the client would be reasonable in his negotiations. It was a simple way of ensuring that work was awarded to the best, or close to best consultant, evaluated on purely technical grounds, undiluted by monetary savings.
Another simple way of selecting the best consultant would be for the client to fix the fee he wants to pay. Selection would then be from among the consultants who are prepared to work for this fee. Thereafter the selection process proceeds to select the best qualified entrant. It may be that some desirable consultants are not prepared to work for the fee on offer. In that case the client needs to up his fee to the point at which such superior consultants are prepared to work on the project. At any rate, such a process ensures that work is assigned on merit, among those competing. As a consequence, firms will then strive to increase their own merit, over time, rather than focusing on how to cut their fees.
In any case, savings in consultancy fees are often trivial in the context of the total project. Savings resulting from more efficient design, particularly at the conceptual stage, can far outweigh the total consultancy fee. One personal experience of a project in Bengaluru was the addition of a latecomer to the shortlist, on instructions from Delhi. This latecomer quoted a fee 1% below that of the best consultant. The chief engineer privately said he knew that by awarding work to the lowest the project cost would go up by 25%, but his hands were tied by audit, and he said he had no option but to award the work to the lowest bidder. Project costs did indeed go up, by more than the anticipated 25%, and the low bidder eventually earned the same fee that would have been paid to the best consultant. But the client ended up with a much costlier project overall. So what indeed did the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG)’s procedures achieve in this case? The answer is: a poorer quality project at significantly higher total cost and all in the name of minimising corruption.
The long-term consequence of this consultant selection process has been that fees have steadily drifted downwards. Consultants themselves are much to blame for this, by striving always to undercut each other. Their focus is no longer on keeping up with the latest developments, or on improving the quality of their work. The focus is on cutting costs. One result is that civil engineers’ salaries have steadily fallen, until now they are well below those of their peers in other professions. This discourages new entrants, who are increasingly the dregs among those who enter engineering college. Quality further declines.
Design and Build Contracts
As a result of bad experiences with consultants, clients are increasingly inclined to award work to contractors on a “design and build” basis. That is, the contractor is asked to take responsibility also for the design, and is free to choose the consultant with whom he wants to work. The consultant’s design is often “proof-checked,” which means that another “proof consultant” is appointed by the client, for a trivial fee, to check and approve the calculations of the main designer. This approval provides no room for conceptual improvement in the design, or indeed protection against uneconomical and over safe designs. It merely provides a check that according to calculations the design is safe. There is no check that it is indeed close to the most economical, thus defeating one of the key objectives of good civil engineering.
But there is a much stronger reason for not awarding “design and build” projects where the contractor has no financial interest in the project after its completion. Flyovers are a typical example where the contractor has simply to deliver the project, and that is the end of the client–contractor relationship. In such cases it is always better to have a consultant who does the design, and a contractor who executes the work. This is because the objectives of consultant and contractor are different. The consultant’s basic objective is to protect the interests of his client (from whom he expects much future repeat work). The contractor’s is to make a profit. The contractor will want to get away with minimum compliance with specifications. The consultant will want high quality and minimal subsequent maintenance problems. His overseeing of the contractor’s work is a vital part of the project process. He provides the necessary checks to ensure that the project is built with the quality that his design demands.
Indeed, contractors’ and consultants’ objectives are so different that some consultants are known to produce one kind of design for a contractor who is their client, and a different kind of design when the owner is their client. For a contractor they will cut corners and produce a minimal design that best uses the equipment the contractor already has. For an owner they will produce a design that is optimal for the project, with a minimum of maintenance headaches thereafter.
To get the best of both worlds, the client should appoint a consultant who prepares a design on the basis of which tenders are invited from contractors. But contractors should also be permitted to submit alternatives with their own design. If this is found cheaper, the client’s consultant much check and approve the design, and supervise construction, as before. If the consultant sees his job as being that of protecting his client’s best interests, these may well be served by accepting an efficient alternative to his own design. It must be admitted however that not all consultants are open-minded and self-confident enough to admit that in particular circumstances there could be alternatives superior to their own design.
The “design and build” alternative, when entered into directly by a client, without a designer of his own, works only if the contractor has a financial interest in the performance of the project after completion. This can apply, for example, to airport design, where the contractor has the concession to subsequently operate the airport for a specified period of time. It can apply to highway design where a toll is to be collected, and the contractor who built the highway is charged with its maintenance at his own cost thereafter for the full concession period.
The flyover under construction in Kolkata was presumably allowed under a design and build contract. There was no independent designer answerable to the owner, to verify the construction, and whose reputation hung on a trouble-free and successful outcome. Several officers of the contracting company have been arrested and charged with murder and conspiracy to murder. This is absurd, and cannot possibly be true, or proved in court. The charge is pure showbiz, making a show of severity, while making no attempt to discover or address the underlying cause. At the most the contracting firm could be charged with negligence, but the real source of trouble is the procurement process, which is guaranteed at its best to deliver mediocre projects, and at its worst to deliver failures like this one.
The flooding that happened in Chennai might be attributed to heavy rain and the sudden opening of a dam’s floodgates. But what is inexplicable is the time it took for the water to recede. This can only be because the city’s drainage systems have been compromised, and that can only happen if those in charge of systems do not have the ordinary competence that good civil engineering demands. All one can blame is the decline of the profession, the ultimate root cause of which is the framework for procurement as determined, above all, by government’s audit arms. These are so bent on preventing corruption (which they are manifestly unable to do) through setting up procedures, that these very procedures, by ignoring quality and even overall project costs, by insisting that each element be awarded to the lowest bidder, are hurting the country’s infrastructure in ways these audit officers are incapable of comprehending, because they have never seen better.
Equally culpable perhaps are the government officers who award work. They have a poor understanding of civil engineering matters anyway, because the education system in that branch has declined in step with the profession. Nor have they had the advantage, in their subsequent careers, of learning from high quality professionals, because the system of procurement has ensured they learn only from the poorest ones. But even if they know something is inadvisable, they prefer the route that will invite no audit objections. After all, their careers are unaffected by the quality or success of the projects they deliver; they get no special promotions on that account. What does threaten to hurt them though is the consequence of not following stipulated procedure, for which they will almost certainly be hauled up by audit. So their focus has to be on procedure, not outcome. Flyovers may fall, and cities flood, but as long as the specified procedures have been followed, no blame will attach to the officers in charge, nor to the very procedures that brought this about.