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Our Infrastructure Is Disastrously Failing Us, and We Are Refusing To Learn

Infrastructural collapses are raising questions on the credibility and viability of PM Modi’s building spree.

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The deadly roof collapse after heavy rains on 28 June at the Delhi Airport's Terminal 1 isn’t an isolated incident, but stands preceded by a long list of catastrophic failures of recently-built infrastructure.

Add to this the perennial floods that most of our urban cities, particularly metros, experience and which we have come to accept. All this in a country which heads the global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI).  

In recent days, canopies of two other airports (Jabalpur, inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in March; and Rajkot) also collapsed. Five bridges have fallen in Bihar in the past few days.

The Mumbai Trans-Harbour Link, inaugurated with great flourish by PM Modi in January 2024, has developed cracks. The Pragati Maidan Tunnel, inaugurated similarly in June 2022, was deemed "useless" by the authorities, after seepage flooded it less than two years after launch.

Worse, the massive Ram Mandir, constructed under the supervision of former Principal Secretary to the PM Nripendra Mishra and inaugurated by PM Modi in January, started to leak at the onset of monsoons, with rainwaters also inundating newly built roads in Ayodhya.
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‘The List Goes On’: Disasters Have Been Toppling Our Lives Year After Year

In November 2023, the Silkyara tunnel, part of the ‘Char Dham’ project, had caved-in.

August 2023 saw 114 workers trapped in an under-construction railway tunnel in Uttarakhand after rainwater flooded it.

Heavy rains from June-October 2023 destroyed large lengths of newly-constructed highways in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

The year 2022-2023 saw reports of massive subsidence in Joshimath on account of heavy construction activities which were allowed against the advice contained in the 1976 MC Mishra Commission report.

A pedestrian suspension bridge over Machchhu River in Morbi city collapsed in October 2022. In September 2022, a massive landslide triggered by heavy rain in Arunachal Pradesh damaged the guard wall of the Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project (SLHP).

In February 2021, a huge chunk of the Nanda Ghunti peak’s slope, along with an enormous block of near-vertical ice, fell-off, plunged nearly two kms to the valley floor and then went on to devastate two hydroelectric projects (Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad) in Uttarakhand.

The Char Dham roads are damaged by rains almost every year.

The list goes on.

However, it’s not just the airports, roads and bridges, but also the railways.

Although the number of train accidents have declined from 14,769 in the years between 1960 to 1971, to 449 in the years between 2015-2022, in the 21st century there should be no cases of trains moving on the same track and colliding at all.

Yet, new trains continue to be flagged off with immense fanfare in spite of the non-availability of the Kavach Train Collision Avoidance System on most tracks and warnings about “serious flaws in the [signalling] system,” particularly the ‘failure of interlocking’.

In turn, all the above is leading many experts to question the credibility and viability of PM Modi’s infrastructure building spree. And there are cogent reasons for this questioning, some of which are iterated below.    

‘Politicisation of Infrastructure’ & Bypassing Critical Processes

Since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party government, in an effort to win brownie points with the electorate and extract political benefit, has been trying to showcase the augmentation of infrastructure as proof of its “developmental agenda.”

This had led to the ‘politicisation of infrastructure’, a trend which has enlarged exponentially in the past few years, with the government constantly emphasising its ‘building much more kilometres of roads' and ‘introducing more and newer trains than the UPA government’.

It has also been trying to accentuate that it is “swift in decisions and implementation” – without understanding the difference between a hasty decision and a timely one, and that “swift decisions and implementation” invariably tend to overwhelm the stipulated process and procedures, which actually should be followed scrupulously even if they are time-consuming.

This politicisation has led to many critical processes being bypassed. 

Infrastructure building requires many procedures, steps, materials, and actions.

In the young, seismically-active Himalayas, hill and mountain-sides need to be cut – and not blasted – and that too at angles which do not promote landslides; the ground needs to be prepared and cured; retaining walls need to be built; concrete needs to set – and most importantly, every project must take cognisance of the geological and environmental conditions it is required to operate in and conform to desired specifications.

In contrast, in most cases, the advice of geologists and environmentalists is glibly ignored, with many roads and highways being built in great hurry, and in utter violation of geological and environmental norms.

Rajneesh Sareen, Program Director of the Sustainable Buildings & Habitat Program at New Delhi’s Center for Science & Environment sums it up, “The variation in environment within just 2-3 kms in the mountains can be huge. Detailed studies have not been done in some of these areas, so how do we assess the likely impact of construction?” 

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Our Engineers Not Taught Multi-Faceted Approach Necessary to Infrastructure Building

The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long been warning that India will be one of the most severely hit countries from climate change.

This information is not new; in fact, it has been experienced first-hand in India in the form of a month’s rainfall falling in just 1-2 days (for instance, the 2020 Kerala floods, or the increase in the intensity and numbers of cyclones.)

Yet, appallingly, no one is cognising this aspect while building infrastructure, and we continue with unplanned “development”/ urbanisation and deforestation.

It’s amazing no one thought of reinforcing the roofs/canopies of the airports. There is no thought that not only should the infrastructure be resilient, but that the service it provides should also be resilient.

There is nil understanding that such ‘development’, with sparse emphasis on sustainable development, is in fact creating new poverty traps – the IPCC reports underscore that some of India’s infrastructural interventions are maladaptive and, instead of assisting development, are likely to aggravate the disaster vulnerabilities. 

The ‘National Employability Report for Engineers 2019’ put out by a job assessment platform Aspiring Minds, had pointed out that:

  • over 80 percent of engineers in India are unfit to take up any job in the knowledge economy;

  • only 40 percent of the total graduate engineers opt for internships for hands on experience, with 36 percent taking up projects other than their coursework.

Things are not much different in other fields of engineering. The numerous ‘engineering colleges’, many of which are private and/or running from compact buildings, neither have a qualified faculty, nor run regular classes, nor offer practical experience – but are run by ill-trained teachers using outdated curriculums.

Further, most subjects today are multi-dimensional; eg, building infrastructure requires a knowledge of modern building materials, diverse technologies, the environment the infrastructure will operate in, climate change and climate adaptation, etc.

However, most such students know nothing beyond what they had imbibed through rote from teachers who themselves knew little – and these are the engineers working on most projects in India. 

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Questions Should Be Raised About Quality of India’s Infrastructure

There seems to be sparse awareness that more the urbanisation, higher is the level of disaster vulnerability. Hence, all our urban spaces must be climate-adapted, sustainable, and future-ready – but there is not a single town or city in India that is thus.

On the other hand, a city that was well-designed, Chandigarh, is now facing incremental deterioration. Besides, a city may be “smart,” ie, the officials precisely know what is happening where in near-real-time – but in the end, it boils down to addressing each of those problems swiftly and competently.

And for that, a “smart” force is required – yet, all we have is the same old archaic, pedantic workforce with arcane mindsets and tools.   

Infrastructure assets must be maintained, renewed, and repaired to ensure that they continue to provide those benefits – and that costs money. Unfortunately, there is sparse focus on such maintenance. It’s either not built into the capital cost, or we have the same listless, tired, unqualified work force attending to periodic maintenance, defects, and faults.

Amazingly, the fact that any infrastructure, irrespective of who built it, is required to be maintained, is glibly glossed over. Niranjan Sahoo, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, while calling many of the infrastructure projects an “electoral gimmick,” added that “infrastructure is just not about building those bridges, airports, ports, and roads. It is also about governance, about maintaining them,” and that disasters like the 28 June airport collapse raise questions about the quality of India’s infrastructure. 

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Our Refusal To Learn and Acknowledge Is Holding Us Back

In 2023, the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) of India had pointed out that the 'Bharatmala Pariyojana' was being built with "innumerable deficiencies, non-compliance of outcome parameters, clear violation of tender bidding process, and huge funding mismanagement."

Additionally, data released by the Election Commission of India shows that some firms were awarded a number of large infrastructure projects either just before or immediately after they purchased electoral bonds, a majority of which were redeemed by the ruling party.

Companies which have a history of accidents are yet awarded new contracts. Hence, it is well plausible that venality played a role in undermining the actual expenditure on the project(s). 

It is not plausible that the Indian bureaucracy is completely bereft of the requisite knowledge – profound infrastructure projects of the 1950s-1960s like the Bhakra Nangal, Hirakud and Nagarjuna Sagar dams; steel plants in Rourkela, Bhilai, and Durgapur; the first set of nuclear reactors; the city of Chandigarh; etc, provide exemplary evidence of their stellar professional competence in planning, designing, critically examining complex projects, and then implementing them.

However, what does one do when ordered to just get it done no matter what? Then there is this refusal to learn – each catastrophic failure of infrastructure is followed first by denial – ‘it didn’t happen/it didn’t leak’; and then by deflection – ‘we didn’t build it, blame the government who built it’.

As per an old adage – 'Some people change when they see the light, some when they feel the heat, others when they are singed, but it is too late by then’. Perhaps, we are waiting to be singed.  

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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