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The Big Debate: Development Versus Sustainability
Can development and sustainability co-exist in India? In the aftermath of the recent Uttarakhand deluge, Manage India looks for some answers in project management


The Vishnuprayag dam that suffered extensive damage during the recent flood (Photo courtesy: MATU Jansangathan)
Massive landslides cause roads to split open in the hilly region

As the dream of reaching double digit gross domestic product growth continues to elude India, economists are calling for structural reforms and infrastructure development. The Planning Commission of India has estimated that India will need an investment of Rs. 45 lakh crore on infrastructure during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017) to remove the infrastructure deficit tag and sustain high growth.

The recently released PMI-KPMG Study on Project Schedule and Cost Overruns throws light on the factors that are impacting the progress of infrastructure projects. Delays in land acquisition and site handover have been identified as the primary reason for schedule overrun in the preexecution stage. This is often caused due to resistance from the local community and environmentalists, and a complex regulatory approval process which includes several environmental clearances. The lack of project management skills in the construction industry aggravates the situation as project managers are incapable of conducting adequate risk assessment, program management, and scope change management. Click here to read abstract of the report.

Environmentalists who oppose infrastructure projects believe the country is hurtling towards fast short-term growth without laying a foundation for long-term development. Is growth today taking place at the cost of the future generation? Are sustainable development and inclusive growth just buzzwords for scholarly pursuits and social activism, and not practical approaches for our country’s all-round progress? The debate on development versus sustainability gets shriller after a tragedy in Uttarakhand that many believe is partly a manmade disaster. On 16 June a cloud-burst in the upper reaches of this hilly region caused massive flash floods and landslides killing more than 5,000 people and decimating towns.

Manage India invites a former bureaucrat and river resources expert, the CEO of an infrastructure company, and a leading social activist to deliberate on these issues and look for answers in project management.

Mr. Chetan Pandit
Faculty member, Symbiosis Institute of Management Studies

Former member, Water Planning and Projects, Central Water Commission & former head, National Water Academy
Q. To what extent are disasters the result of poor planning or poor management of existing infrastructure?

A disaster may be the result of an extreme natural event but the extent of devastation is often the result of poor maintenance of infrastructure or poor disaster management.

For example, urban buildings that should be earthquake resistant fail when an earthquake strikes, like we have seen in Ahmedabad. Flood embankments often fail due to poor maintenance. But why is maintenance poor? Answer to that is not easy. Many complex socio-economic factors come into play. For example, maintenance works are often not done on time because of contract related problems.

Q. What factors contributed to the scale of the devastation in Uttarakhand?

Three factors are emerging but the merits of each need to be examined:

a) An extreme meteorological event: A very heavy rainfall occurred in a very short duration of time. Could this have been forecasted? Meteorological authorities say that atmospheric processes that cause such rainfall build up so fast that these cannot be forecasted. Further, in hilly catchments the time duration between the occurrence of rainfall and the start of flood is very short.

b) The construction of hotels, houses, and ashrams close to the river bank: It is easy to blame the local administration for allowing this but this is a reaction with hindsight and without any analysis of the region’s flood records. It is an accepted fact that flood plains can be used for economic activity. The type of activity should be decided based on flood risk, which is determined based on past data. Is there past data to suggest that the buildings that have been destroyed in the current flood are located in a high flood risk area? I doubt it.

It is fashionable to criticize construction in flood plains. The Akshardham Temple in Delhi is located more than two km from the Yamuna. The Taj Mahal has been on the river bank for over 350 years. The Taj has not bothered the Yamuna, and the Yamuna has not bothered the Taj. But the Akshardham Temple and the Commonwealth Games Village have been severely criticized for being in the flood plains.

c) Performance of the disaster management system: The number of pilgrims/tourists trapped and affected was close to 100,000. For such a large number, and in that terrain and weather, evacuation was a very difficult task. In my opinion, the army and other agencies did a commendable job. Should there be a restriction on how many visitors are allowed at a time? In hindsight, yes.

There is no hydro project upstream of Kedarnath that could have caused the flood in Kedarnath. The Tehri dam in fact has saved the downstream areas by absorbing a major part of the flood. What happened in Uttarakhand was an unfortunate natural event, and the magnitude of the disaster increased because of the large numbers involved. But now the do-nothingists are having a field day arguing against everything from hydel projects, roads, and hotels, to visitors, and tourism.

Q. Environmental activism is set to grow in the country and unless the government takes proactive steps, infrastructure projects are going to be affected. What changes need to come into the decision-making process?

The government realizes that runaway environmental activism is hindering the progress of infrastructure projects. But the dominance of environmental activism cannot be overcome by making changes in the decision-making process because the same dominance blocks any changes in the decision-making process. A good example of this is the Cabinet Committee on Investment set up in January 2013 to review the procedure followed by ministries for clearance of infrastructure and manufacturing sector projects and to expedite projects costing over Rs. 10 billion. Originally intended to override the delays by other ministries, it was subsequently diluted to only review project status.

Still, the setting up such a committee is a move to undo the damaging impacts of excessive regulation, without actually dismantling the process. It is also a tacit acceptance by the government of having over-reached in formulating the environmental regulatory process.

Public pressure is the only counter to excessive environmental activism. The best example of this is the recent fracas over the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel report. This panel was set up to make recommendations for conservation of the environment in the Western Ghats. The panel recommended a blanket ban on almost all development activities in the region. The public reaction against the report was so strong that the government had to set up another committee to review it, which rejected the report.

However, the anti-infrastructure forces do not seem to be short on resources for their activities. The pro-infrastructure forces are divided and muted. We are passing through difficult times, and I do not expect any significant changes in the near future.

Mr. Parmeswaran Sivalingam
CEO, GIL EPC Division
GMR Infrastructure Ltd.
Q. What common challenges do infrastructure projects in India face that lead to time and cost overrun?

Complex infrastructure projects have multiple inter-related nuances that need to be managed effectively from the start of the project. We have observed that in India the challenges begin at the project conception phase itself. Projects are not conceived well and there is lack of proper investment or due diligence at the detailed project report (DPR) phase. This forces the contractor or concessionaire to base their projections on incomplete/incorrect inputs, which in turn, leads to incorrect planning and estimation, leading to project time and cost overrun. This is compounded by a lengthy statutory compliance process and issues like land acquisition delays for which adequate buffers are not provided. Contractors also lack adequate knowledge and a skill base to tackle complex projects and end up making simplistic assumptions without allowing for the project complexity. Sufficient effort is not made in managing project stakeholders. There is insufficient emphasis on scenario analysis and disaster preparedness. This, in turn, leads to a very slow response when unexpected events happen. The above issues are especially pertinent to North Indian hydel projects, which are undertaken in a very tough Himalayan region.

Q. Please provide a brief of a mega GMR project that faced some of these common challenges and how did that affect the project schedule.

GMR is the concessionaire for Delhi International Airport whose Terminal 3 was completed in a record 37 months. The major challenges faced during the development of this mega project were:
With its project management skills and effective management of project stakeholders, GMR was able to complete this mega project within time.

Q. Infrastructure projects in India are often stalled or delayed because of stiff opposition from environmental activists and the local people. What are the reasons for such opposition or mistrust?

Infrastructure projects, especially mega projects, have a large impact on the local people and the environment. The lives of local people are sometimes turned upside down as they might get displaced from their lands and livelihoods. The environmental impact is also huge for some projects as humungous resources are consumed or the landscape is permanently altered. A detailed social and environmental impact study is needed to address all these issues. A mega project should be undertaken only when a project is proven to have a disproportionate beneficial overall impact. Moreover, enough time and effort needs to be spent in building local consensus for the project with adequate compensation for those impacted adversely. At all times the stakeholders should perceive that they are being dealt fairly. The inability of the project execution company to make this whole process transparent is the main reason that leads to stiff opposition from local people and environmentalists.

Q. Can project management help build a better sense of responsibility towards the environment in infrastructure creators?

Health, safety, and environment processes are an integral part of project management. With adequate emphasis and top management support for these processes, infrastructure creators can responsibly create sustainable infrastructure.

Q. Please provide a few examples of how GMR has adapted project management and PMI’s PMBOK® Guide framework to Indian conditions.

The GMR Group has addressed all the Knowledge Areas of PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) in its process system for project management while adapting the same for India specific conditions.

Mr. Himanshu Thakkar
South Asia Network on
Dams Rivers and People
Q. Infrastructure projects in India often face opposition from activists and the local people, leading to projects getting scuttled or delayed, and project costs going up. Why is such opposition so common?

The major reason is the lack of proper appraisal, including social, environmental, and even technical (hydrological and geological) appraisal and the lack of participatory decision-making before taking the decision to launch a project. There is a complete lack of a credible compliance system to ensure that statutory laws are followed, and environmental and social management plans are implemented as required. In the case of hydel projects, we do not have a cumulative impact assessment that takes into account the carrying capacity of river basins. There is no assessment done of how a project can impact the disaster potential of an area and how it can affect the adaptation of communities in the changing climate. After a project is implemented, we do not have any credible system to check how a project is performing against what it was expected to achieve. Local people do not even get basic benefits; leave aside being taken as partners in development.

Q. Environmentalists are often seen as activists opposed to the country’s economic development. How do you respond to that?

Project developers, those connected with the government, and vested interest groups are raising baseless charges to deflect attention from their shoddy appraisal processes, short cuts in decision-making processes, and the lack of basin wide studies and credible compliance mechanisms or post facto evaluations. How can we have economic development at the cost of communities, environmental resources, our future generations, and democratic decision-making after full appraisal?

Q. Does the government do enough to encourage public debate about its development objectives? Does the government or private developers communicate well to people of a region before they embark on a project?

In the entire project lifecycle, local communities have a role only for the namesake at the public hearing stage. Even at this stage, it is a complete façade since local people do not even have the details of a full and proper impact assessment in a language and manner that they understand. The public hearing is not conducted by an independent panel and when people protest, they are barred from even entering the venue. Even if all those present protest, the project still goes through. So we have no credible process in place for any worthwhile role for the local people. How can there be any trust in such a situation?

Q. You have been opposed to the construction of the Tehri dam. However, during the recent Uttarakhand deluge, the dam helped contain the crisis and hence, contributed to the region’s sustainability. How do you respond?

The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation, Central Water Commission, and Uttarakhand chief minister, Mr. Vijay Bahuguna, have been claiming that without the Tehri dam, the cities of Rishikesh, Haridwar, and the entire western Uttar Pradesh would have been washed away and water may have entered Delhi. This is such a baseless claim. We had come out with an analysis that showed that without the Tehri dam, water levels at Haridwar and Rishikesh would not have gone up beyond what they did for the simple reason that the peak flood of 6,900 cubic meters per second (cumecs) in the Bhagirathi river on which the dam is situated happened on June 16. The flood reached 11,000 cumecs in the Alaknanda river on 17 June. So without the Tehri dam, floods may have reached Rishikesh and Haridwar a day earlier than 18 June. That it eventually did but the flood levels would have been lower than the levels reached on 18 June.

We have challenged the authorities to make public the hourly figures of the flow in the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda, and Ganga and also the levels, inflows, and outflows of the Tehri dam for the period 15-20 June, so that everyone can check the reality of their claim. The Tehri dam is a ticking time bomb in view of an earthquake of 8 or above on the Richter scale that seismologists have been warning about. We must also remember that due to the mismanagement of the Tehri dam in September 2010, Haridwar faced its highest flood level in history.

Q. Project management calls for a holistic view of projects and covers potential risks that a project poses on the environment and people. In the Indian context, what can a project manager do to ensure his/her project poses minimal risks and hence, has less chance of facing opposition?

The first step is to have an honest environmental impact assessment, cumulative impact assessment, and disaster potential assessment, which we do not have today. Involve local communities in an honest way from the beginning of the appraisal process in order to achieve compliance during the construction and post commissioning stages. Put a credible compliance system in place and follow the rule of law. In the context of Uttarakhand, there is a need for an independent credible inquiry to assess the role of hydropower projects in increasing the disaster potential and actual disaster proportions. Till such an inquiry is in place, there should be no project.

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