Challenges and opportunities in civil engineering in India

Er. Sanna Ratnavel, Vice Chairman, Engineering Council of India shared insights on civil engineering challenges and growing opportunities in an interview taken by Constrofacilitator.

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civil engineering in India
Challenges and opportunities in civil engineering in India
 Er. Sanna Ratnavel- Large Scale Systems Expert – Consultant in Systems & Infrastructure Engineering

Civil engineers play a pivotal role in the construction of roads, airports, buildings, bridges, etc. that we see everyday. They are responsible for developing a nation and its infrastructure. They have the responsibility to find and implement solutions to complex problems. However, they face many challenges in executing their duties or carrying on their responsibilities effectively. At times, the pressure of achieving the target is high and the time which is necessary for performing that activity falls short of achieving the target. A balanced attitude to achieve the target with the benchmark quality of a civil engineer.

In regard to civil engineering challenges and growing opportunities, Constrofacilitator interviewed Er. Sanna Ratnavel, Vice Chairman, Engineering Council of India. He is a practising consultant in infrastructure engineering and large-scale systems planning. He has developed a lot of systems dynamics modelling for urban issues. He is also conducting a lot of student mentoring programmes for many engineering institutes. He was National President of the Association of Consulting Civil Engineers (I) in 2017–19. He is a B.Tech from IIT Delhi and also holds an M.Phil. Degree in Futurology. He is also a popular orator and writer in the area of his specialisation.

During the interview, he shared insights on the adaptation of technology, urban challenges and civil engineering opportunities, civil engineering practices, bye-laws and much more. Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Your viewpoint on the adoption of technology in civil engineering?

Because of a misunderstanding of the difference between “cost and price,” the construction industry is hesitant to adopt and harness cutting-edge technology. Many people think modern technology is costly, but in reality, in the life cycle of any structure, this viewpoint is false. However, we pick up the new ideas a little late and try to adopt them in practice with the help of good clients.

When we talk about technical education in this line of civil engineering, it is a discipline of seamless engineering and our curriculum framed based on the Washington accord is excellent. But unfortunately, this syllabus is misunderstood by our universities and colleges. The time of students is being wasted without understanding the difference between engineering and technology as well as the credit system. Less importance is being given to teaching basic science courses, engineering sciences, engineering arts, and humanities. Many universities and colleges don’t have a flexible system like IITs and IISc to demonstrate these subjects to sensitize the industry to adopt changes across the globe.

Adoption of technology in civil engineering

What are the different urban challenges and civil engineering opportunities at present in India?

In view of sustainability, the more complex challenges are from urban areas. I think we have to have an interdisciplinary approach to understand urban dynamics. Yes, opportunities are there in the present and futuristic perspective, but potential consultants in India are unable to perform to combat the urban challenges collectively. Combating urban challenges is a holistic approach by keeping the cities in order without any need in the city, thus forgetting our heritage values as cities.

How do civil engineering practices need to be upheld in the current scenario?

In the current scenario, every action in construction is dependent on financial resources. The owner of the project may be a government agency or an individual who needs to have proper contract documents to claim the required quality in construction. Nowadays, disputes have become common in all construction activities, resulting in cost overruns and time overruns. One important point that must be noted is that unless there is a lab facility at the site, it is not possible to give brickwork or concrete or any item of construction work. We should also avoid testing materials far away from the site, especially those used by institutes or colleges for quality control.

We must use trained labour in all construction trade activities to increase productivity and durability, as well as to avoid future problems. Using trained labour in construction will also reduce material waste.

Hence, a good contract document, a lab facility at the site, and engaging trained labour should be made mandatory to achieve good construction in the field. The owners of the project shall pay their attention to accredited professional engineers to achieve the above tasks as per BIS or any other code provisions.

Civil engineering practices

What are the current challenges in the Indian construction sector?

We have plenty of resources and knowledge nowadays. But the non-availability of good contract documents, trained labour, materials testing facilities, and competent engineers or architects has become common at construction sites. It happens as the owners don’t prepare to spend the required resources in the above areas. Whenever we create an infrastructure through central government organisations, they are fairly doing well with updated technology and knowledge.

The resources spent by local bodies are not giving any return as expected. A few projects to and fro may be doing well due to awareness of good leadership on a particular project. But construction needs rehabilitation or retrofitting within a very short period, and this cost is more than the project cost now.

The state and local bodies should engage accredited, competent “professional engineers” to achieve estimated return values. Once again, I emphasise that good contract documents, trained labour, a lab facility at the site and engaging accredited professional engineers are the only things that could tackle the challenges at the construction site.

Is there a need to revamp civil engineering methods toward greater compliance?

Yes, we have to update our knowledge through Continuous Professional Development (CPD). All professional societies should conduct workshops, seminars, and colloquia to update technology transformation for practising engineers. It is already being done well by professional bodies in India. As I told you earlier, the owner of the project must mobilise the resources and more than one consultant as required for the projects without any apprehension. Few self-styled engineers and architects still use the old methods, and this amounts to higher wastage of scarce natural resources and also cost overrun and time overrun. All of these happen due to a lack of awareness of the owner of the project in identifying competent professional engineers.

Revamping civil engineering methods

What are the important bye-laws that a civil engineer must adhere to?

Every civil engineer should follow the BIS code in all actions during construction. I am proud of the BIS team and they are improving a lot in revising codes at par with international standards. Also, I have to mention the revised circulars of CPWD, NHAI, and Railways to maintain the construction standards in their organisations too. At the same time, the industry, including government organizations, should come forward to use accredited professional engineers from ECI and IEI to employ competent consultants and contractors. These are the two professional societies maintaining the lovely mechanism for setting standards for practising engineers in India. Some municipalities and local governments do registration only based on the ‘engineering degrees’, but don’t have a good mechanism to compare engineers to international standards.

( It is very unfortunate to note some municipalities have fixed P.G and Doctorate degrees as a minimum qualification for structural and geotechnical practices, which is against NBC. Also, they are not familiar with the difference between qualification and competency. This rule has become a barrier for practising competent engineers with more than 30 years of experience in the field).

What is the importance of the National Proficiency Evaluation Test in respect to civil engineering?

Many brilliant students are studying engineering courses in non-premier institutions and are usually not recognised by the industry. The NPET score will be useful for those students to market themselves in the industry. In India, we don’t have national-level tests for all engineering students, so state governments, PSUs, and private organisations will recruit fresh engineering students with unique test mechanisms like NPET. The GATE score is meant for academic purposes only. However, ECI is working with CIDC and other member associations to fine-tune the NPET in the future so that it will be accepted by all.

Internship for young civil engineers

What are the right steps to take to be relevant for a young civil engineer?

It is a very easy process. We have to engage professional engineers with 10 years of experience from the industry as faculties for undergraduate engineering students in all institutes, including IITs and NITs. In this case, so-called Doctorate and P.G qualifications will not be required for positions as teachers in technical institutions. These measures will certainly improve employability among young engineers as they better understand the industrial needs.

An internship is the most important part of the undergraduate level.  We shall engage students for a minimum of 180 days for internship. This shall be divided into two parts.  In the first part, the student shall spend 60 working days understanding how to interpret the available theoretical knowledge into practical applications using creativity and innovation. The second part shall be 100 working days, where the student shall do an individual project with alternative ideas given sustainability, with his imagination, that will replace the existing or conventional actions in the real industry in view of energy conservation, economy, safety and environment.

In the process, the mentors should allow the students to think of any impractical imaginations. But projects should not repeat or copy any existing technology from anywhere. The student shall not be allowed to undertake an internship in self-styled engineering firms. The Engineering Council of India is working in this line to support the internship of students, have already signed the MOU with AICTE.

To provide a good internship for students the Government, Corporates, PSU and NGOs shall extend financial support to each student during the internship to make every student an asset to this nation. It is our duty too.