Project Management in India – Challenges in New Delhi


This is a repost of an article published at Linked.

Recently I wrote about project management in Macau and how different it is within its constraints of being in a tight labor market. Today I will highlight something completely opposite: Project Management in India and its challenges.

Transportation is a nightmare. In contrary to China, who is developing highways, railways and airports en masse, India’s transportation infrastructure is a nightmare. Delivering of goods from one city to another can take a considerable longer time than one is used to from Europe, the US or China. As an example a 400 kilometer drive from New Delhi along the National Highway towards the North took me 8 hours as the ‘National Highway’ was either a construction site or a heavily damaged two lane road full of trucks, cows and horse carriages. Also inner-city traffic is horrible with my daily commute from office to home taking up to an hour for a distance somewhere else covered within 20 minutes. Anyone who has visited Mumbai in recent years knows what I am talking about. In addition to the general traffic situation, customs and customs clearance will take longer than expected. During my own time over there I had to experience that imported goods were lost at airport and the local airport cargo manager requested for a special “expediting search fee” to find our cargo. Naturally we refused and as such were only able to get our cargo to customs clearance 4 days later.

Labor is readily available … India is one of the most populated countries in the world and as such there are millions of poor and unemployed labors on the streets that will take any job on a daily or hourly basis. The local economies are tailored towards this abundance of labor and you will see young men gathered around “chai wala” (tea street vendors) waiting for someone to approach them with a task. Minimum wages in New Delhi were low (as shown below) and as such every task that could be done by oneself, such as picking up copies from the printer or washing dishes or connecting a cable, is being outsourced to a cheaper labor. Field commissioning engineers would not touch cat 6 cables in my presence without their manual labor doing all the physical work for them. As such, quality and workmanship suffer.

… except if you need qualified ones. With abundance of labor an abundance of colleges and tertiary schools opened in India, calling themselves “Engineering Colleges” or “XXX of Technology”. Quality of education is poor at many of them, with teachers being employed on an hourly basis to deliver lectures and certificates in parts being faked. Henceforth with whomever you employ or with whomever you are working with in India, it is better to put forward a simple and brief test of qualifications. In my own time I experienced engineers who were not able to read simple drawings or administrative officials not knowing the principle rules of their area. As frustrating as it is, the important rule is to understand who has which skills and who has the potential in your team to be trained into the required position.

Red tape and paperwork. I just would like to highlight two sentences I heard in India during either meetings or discussions with officials: “you can only kill a paper with paper” and “we don’t trust in words, we trust in paper”. The basic meaning behind these statements is that the written word has a lot of power and contracts are often read word-by-word and followed word-by-word. With the advent of sophisticated rail and metro systems in India, whole contracts were imported and adapted to the local requirements, e.g. from Hongkong, yet the way they are being executed is a totally different one from the way the contracts were intended to. This can lead to ridiculous long amounts of time wasted to fulfill requirements for the requirements sake without actual benefit to either contractual party. A classic example I encountered is that a number of British or American standards and norms were copied into a particular contract, either out of convenience or to satisfy the need to have “state of the art” requirements. These standards however were not applicable in the least to the works to be executed. Instead of a simple disregard, e.g. via formal letter or informal meeting, a lengthy process had to be undertaken involving several consultants and experts to ensure that enough “paper” had been produced to “kill” the contract requirement, i.e. to somehow be able to say that “yes, this requirement has been fulfilled”. A lengthy process wasting man hours for both engineering and managerial staff.

Pollution, dust and lack of understanding. Having worked in an electronic industry, the need for a clean and dust-free environment is a necessity that often enough decides about the lifetime of expensive equipment. India’s ecological record is not the best and whereas China is often in the news on their PM 2.5 levels, New Delhi or other parts of India could have made the headlines at least as often. I have seen data centers with centimeters of dust on equipment racks, dead rats inside of fiber optic equipment housings, animals freely running around in operation centers, household air condition units (with overflowing condensate drains) above 100 thousand euro computer units and computers dying within a year or two of operation due to clogging and lack of filter cleaning. Provision of heavy duty equipment is definitely a wise choice, yet from own experience counterproductive in this highly price-sensitive market. Better invest in two or three additional site supervisors with cameras that take records of all non-compliant situations at site as basis of warranty voidance and claim for additional money against faulty equipment.

Intercultural understanding. With the above constraints taken into account, one of the biggest challenges in India is the intercultural misunderstandings that will happen between Western (or Eastern) and Indian mentalities. With the caste system being a very strong subconscious force, high poverty and un-education levels, multiple religions and sects as well as an upbringing totally different from other countries, one needs tolerance and patience to succeed in this area of the world. Asking the right question in the right way has proven very successful for me. Example given, instead of asking “Have you completed this list?” one should say “Yesterday I asked you to make a list, please show it to me now”. In the first instance the initial reaction most likely would be a “yes” whereas in the second instance, the answer is forced to be either a “here it is” or “I haven’t done that yet” (in which case you can give an immediate new deadline).

As said in the beginning and in my last post, I probably could write a whole book about the challenges one encounters and how to tackle them. I invite everyone who would like to know more to either leave me a comment here or contact me at MLVONSCHAPER AT YAHOO DOT DE.

Morning Smog in New Delhi

Remember the recent news from Beijing about air quality? German newspaper ZEIT is reporting about the terrible situation in Delhi and mentioning the generally worse conditions in New Delhi than in Beijing. Not to a surprise to me who lived in Delhi for over two years, as this situation has been reported already more than once.
What is the result? Beijing’s government is trying to improve, with Delhi’s government having given up on even trying. Even worse – for me at least – is the lack of reaction from the general public on this situation. Even the report of the Times of India “Thought Beijing air was bad? Delhi’s no better” sounds more like a “I am here too” statement than a real out-cry for government regulation and industry oversight. Yet in a country that continues to be home for a third of world’s poor population and is ranked 15th on the Global Hunger Index, there are other collossal problems to be taken care of first, before a 1st World Problem such as Air Quality comes into mind.
For everyone that works in India and is facing these health challenges, I can only recommend to wear protective equipment (such as N95 masks) whenever situations deteriorate and Delhi’s sky is clocking up. Because, don’t forget, there are also beautiful days in India.
Gateway to India IV, originally uploaded by Azchael.

Major Project Failure – Berlin Airport

AirportAs recently mentioned on my LinkedIn account, I like to follow the progress of major infrastructure projects world-wide. Especially those that show signs of failure. Failure is always an opportunity to learn and improve one’s own skills. Hence when I first read about the fact that the architect is sueing the operating company at BER airport for not following its design and causing the delays, it was time to read up on it. As Wikipedia states that especially the fire alarm and life safety system is heavily flawed at this building, I couldn’t believe my eyes. From my own experience in Macau, Fire Services are taken serious by architects and MEP engineers and every little change is to be documented, checked and audited. As such reading, that

The major issue responsible for the delayed opening is the fact that the fire protection and alarm system in the terminal building has not been built according to the construction permit. Therefore, it failed the TÜV acceptance test (a prerequisite for the airport to be opened), and a proposed solution with human fire watches (up to 700 people would have been employed for this job) was rejected by the building supervision of the local Dahme-Spreewald district. There are flaws concerning the wiring, programming and implementing of the highly complex system, by which sprinklers, smoke extractors and fire doors will be controlled fully automaticly.[2] Because of aesthetic reasons, it was decided that the BER terminal building would not have any smoke pipes on its rooftop. Therefore, in case of fire, smoke would be pumped into exhaust pipes that are running below the building (thus running against the physical property of hot air to rise upwards), a set-up that at this scale is considered to be unique. So far, this does not work as anticipated.[3] Also, the train station underneath the terminal building is not properly linked to the fire protection system. To meet the requirements for the fire system to pass the acceptance test, large scale reconstruction work might be needed.[24]

project management of this critical infrastructure project has failed tremendously. Luckily enough the flaws were detected prior to opening, not as with the case of the Delhi Metro Airport Express that went into operation before noticing cracks on the elevated pillars and cave-in dangers on the tunnels. Please take a minute to read up on these two projects, the background stories, the fights that are being put forward in press, court and cross-company-claims and the personal biographies of project managers, major stakeholders and other individuals involved. Apply the lessons you draft in your head on your daily work and ensure that such things do not happen again!

Photo taken above is taken from a Lufthansa Airbus at Delhi Airport, India.


Working Conditions in India V – Building construction

Construction support, originally uploaded by Azchael.

Another example of lack of safety measures: Only wooden bars are used without real guiding rail to speak off, no boards between the bars to support walking or other balance-requiring tasks.

Furthermore, as also mentioned in the previous post, 2nd hand bricks are being used in this construction and not even good quality ones as can be seen from the window construction on the lower left part of the photo. Bricks are broken, and more or less fitted into the open space, thereafter plastered irrespective of whether the bricks fill out the hole or not.

As responsible project manager such conditions are not to be allowed at your project and suitable site supervisors have to ensure that quality standards are met!

Poverty in India: New Delhi Slum / Training is a mandatory MUST

Slum, btw New Delhi, originally uploaded by Azchael.

With 41.6% of the population of India falling below the international poverty line (as of 2005), the above is a typical picture of what most of the poorer part of New Delhi looks like.

This extreme poverty, the slums and the overpopulation are also challenging factors for every project conducted on the India subcontinent. Especially on the civils side, be it railways, highways, buildings or other structures, most onsite manpower will be peons, recruited on the street or at the border of slums.

These people herein usually have not graduated from secondary school if alone primary school and lived their life in the slum as can be seen above. From my personal experience I noticed the following thing:

Quality of work cannot be expected from workers without explicit training because the standard expected from norms and from our own Western experience has never been part of the life of these people. Take a close look at the photo above and imagine that these living conditions are what you have experienced your whole life over. Hence for you, bricks do not necessarily be of the same shape and precise size. In contrary, 2nd hand bricks are more common for you and a normal part of construction. Re-using of material for purposes not intended to in the first place becomes commonplace and most of the people you can see rather believe in making a jugaad than in completing a work in the – mostly effort-involving – standard way.

Taken this into account, it is of imminent importance that a profound site training, site supervision and quality control is installed. Taking this a step further, site supervisors in the first instance should always come from other construction works outside of India until you as a project manager are sure that the people you have employed for your work can live up to the standard required.

Traffic Conditions in India: Haldwani

Haldwani, originally uploaded by Azchael.

Whenever you want to conduct a project in India, please be aware of the traffic and road conditions present.

The above photo is a splendid example of most of India, especially the smaller towns and cities outside of major metropolis: No road demarkations, multiple traffic participants (pedestrians, cars, tricycles, bicycles, ox carts, etc.) and in general no adherence to traffic rules.

This has especially importance in case larger transports have to be undertaken, e.g. transformers or wind turbine blades. Often enough road conditions are even worse and what improvements there are in roads in metropolis like Delhi or Mumbai, traffic congestion is eating up.

Please also have a look at the following photos & videos:

Traffic Delhi - Faridabad

Working Conditions in India IV: Construction in Kerala

Construction in Kerala, originally uploaded by Azchael.

Another example of lacking safety measures at a mall construction site in Kerala, South India. None of the workers visible wears any kind of protective safety equipment (helmet, vest or others) and even worse, to the right of the picture a worker is even attempting to use a ladder close to the edge of the construction site. Without safety belt any mishappening might result in a fatal fall several stories high.

Responsible project managers are not to allow such conditions to be present at their site and accurate training has to be given to each site worker.

Please also have a look at the following two photos:

Construction in Kerala

Construction in Kerala