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Tunnelling is a relatively recent phenomenon in India in especially when it comes to roads. With few domestic players in the market in manufacturing sophisticated equipment, each tunnel is a marvel in itself.
Parameswaran Sivalingam, CEO, GIL EPC Division, GMR Group, a leading infrastructure project developer
S Pandari, DGM-Tunnelling, L&T, which has constructed many iconic infrastructure projects in India
Satish Suneja, Head-Technical, Marti India, subsidiary of the Switzerland-based Marti Group, which is currently executing a 10 km tunnel project in Bhutan
Shameer Kote, Director, NIG & Rich Infratech, which is currently involved in the Mangalore-Bangalore connectivity project
Kapil Bhati, MD, Robbins Tunnelling & Trenchless Technology, a leading tunnelling equipment player.
Specific issues discussed.
How has India been as a market for you in tunnelling?
There is a reasonably good outlook for tunnelling in the country. The market for underground solutions in metros, hydro power, storage caverns, highways, railways and urban infrastructure will continue to increase. Increasing urbanisation will be a key driver for this demand.
The tunnelling industry has matured from labour intensive and slow construction to the more mechanised and sophisticated solutions we see today in the country. The use of drilling jumbos and tunnel boring machines is commonplace.
However, there is room for improvement in the design and execution side of the industry. There needs to be more depth in the value chain in the tunnelling market before we can deliver tunnelling projects reliably and safely.
All the related sectors have a large potential for tunnel construction for various purposes, and other underground storage facilities are being planned for storing crude oil, etc, making the tunnelling market in India lucrative.
Currently, India is a tough market to crack because it is very price sensitive although opportunities are enormous. An issue is the preference for L1 contract alone to get the job with the technical competence being a secondary factor.
India is a big market as we are lagging behind at least 30-40 years in terms of the road infrastructure. Anywhere in the world, the roads are connected through the tunnel. India is developing tunnels [only now] because of the development we see in roads. In Karnataka, connectivity between Mangalore and Bangalore will be reduced by at least 15-20 km because of a few tunnels which are going to be made. The government is on the verge of declaring the making of four-way roads with the tunnel. This kind of development is going to be there all across the country and there is huge potential and big market. But where do the funds come? Tunnelling has a lot of scope and requirement in today's world because right now we are going round the valley, maintenance of the road and the distance and time taken to travel are major issues.
Another aspect is the Government of India also needs to commission many tunnelling works for petroleum pipeline projects.
India has a great potential in tunnelling. There are a lot of hydroelectric power projects, metro projects, road tunnels and micro-tunnelling for utilities coming up in the near future which may require hard rock , earth pressure balance (EPB) machine , and small boring units (SBU) of different diameters.
What is the scope of tunnelling work here in India?
While, traditionally, tunnel construction in India was associated in smaller lengths with other components like dams and power houses in hydro-electric projects or road or rail networks, nowadays, longer lengths of tunnels are planned in transport sector to reduce the travel time in hilly terrains, as well as to create all weather connectivity in snow laden areas to improve better social infrastructure.
Though these projects do throw construction in some difficult conditions, most of these projects will become engineering marvels, as well as serve greater social cause.
In India, the tunnelling works are basically done for rail projects, underground metro projects and hydro power sector. There are many metro projects coming up where the latest technologies are being used. At this moment in India, probably the maximum tunnel projects are simultaneously happening in cities. So, this is one focus area for most of the companies. We are also eyeing this market.
Second market is basically tunnelling in Himalayan terrain, basically for hydro sector.
The biggest scope right now is in infrastructure, be it in avoiding [traversing up and down] valleys or in metro projects because there is no place in the cities to make roads. The tunnel in Mumbai on the Eastern Freeway saves considerable distance. But tunnelling work is an expensive affair.
There has been lot of scope for tunnelling in India. Big hydro-electric power projects are planned to enhance the hydropower potential in Himalayas, micro tunnelling projects are coming up to expand urban water supply and sewerage systems. Road tunnels for improving road and rail connectivity across the country and last but not the least metro projects for overcoming traffic congestions and expanding mass transit system.
How do you see the tunneling evolution in India? What is your experience so far?
In Europe and other developed places, tunnelling work is done by using advanced machinery. In India, we are still doing the controlled blasting and hand drilling. Dubai Metro completely used a machine which starts at one place and goes on per day drills of about 600 to 800 m or probably more. We do not use such machines because of the cost involved. But now such machines are going to come to India because of the requirement and the number of jobs which is available in India.
Sivalingam: Adequate rock and soil investigation is critical in tunnelling and yet inadequate attention is being given to this aspect at the project formulation stage. As a result, estimates do not adequately reflect the associate risks.
Cases of low productivity of tunnel boring machines due to wrong selection, inability to anticipate fault zones in mountainous terrains, wrong execution strategy due to optimistic forecasts of rock quality, inadequate risk assessment prior to execution, poorly structured contracts that seek to pass all risks downstream and inadequate attention to proper design are still common in the industry. The market will realise the consequences of these issues and have to correct itself quickly, as the consequences of getting it wrong in tunnelling is considerably higher than in any other infrastructure project.
In India, though tunnel construction started as early as in British era, there have not been much of developments in later period. But of late, there is a spurt in tunnel construction activities as part of ongoing Indian infrastructure development initiatives combined with technological advancements, the country could attain.
If we compare what we were doing 10 years back with what we are doing today there is a lot of difference as new experiences and technologies have come into the Indian market. The experience came through the foreign companies in the beginning, but at the same time, a lot of Indian players have evolved as pretty competent tunnel players. The technology and skills have also improved locally.
So, things are improving and evolving. In the last 20 years, there were lot of jobs in hydro sector being done. Now with the opening of metro sector, per km tunnel projects in a year constructed have increased drastically because all the major cities are doing the underground projects except Mumbai for that matter.
Increasing need of electricity, water supply and sewerage systems and requirement of more road and railway tunnels due to the increasing population has evolved the tunnelling industry in India . Our experience and response regarding the projects is very good and looks promising in future.
What are the major issues in tunnelling in India?
In India, most of the tunnels are planned to be constructed in younger Himalayan geology with a lot of unforeseeable conditions. There are many issues which affect the timelines and cost of the tunnel projects. Some of the critical issues like detailed geotechnical investigations at planning stage, risk sharing in terms of cost and time by the owner agencies, managing unfavourable and unexpected geological conditions like water ingress, roof collapses, flowing conditions, excessive water ingress, are to be tackled well not only by the contracting agencies, but also by the owner agencies.
We need to develop expertise to tackle such issues to overcome the present difficulties faced in tunnel construction.
The major issue which everybody is facing is that contracts are mostly one-sided loaded towards employers and there has been an indecisiveness of executing bodies that leads towards disputes which is going into either conciliation or arbitration.
The process is hampering at this moment with a lot of issues, such as geotechnical. To whom the geotechnical surprise belongs is a debate which is unending in India. Clients try to pass on every risk towards the contractor. Sometimes, it becomes surprising that people do investigation for years and they could not find anything but contractor within one month of tendering period has to undertake all the risks.
The second issue which is coming up these days is the kind of mechanisation happening in infrastructure projects. Mechanisation of course saves time but at the same time mechanisation has scaled up the investment cost. Sitting idle with that investment for even one month is a huge cost and so decisiveness during execution is an issue.
There are machines available around the world but we do not have it yet probably because of taxation process here and the cost involved for this machinery. Also, there were no such jobs available to use machinery. But now there are new jobs coming up, so slowly the machines are going to come. Secondly, we do not have 100 per cent technical knowhow on tunnelling work. We are still collaborating with foreign players like the South Koreans.
What is your future outlook on tunnelling business?
The greater awareness of environmental constraints, higher cost of land in urban areas, continued investment in railways, expressways, metros and hydros will be the key drivers of the tunnelling industry in India. Additionally, urban planners will increasingly need to find underground solutions to overcome constraints in building infrastructure in congested corridors.
Of course, there will be a lot of opportunities and prospects in tunnelling business, as far as India is concerned, as Indian Government focuses on improving infrastructure in hilly states and there is also an increased focus on improving urban mass mobility projects like metro rail networks. All these sectors will make the tunnelling business in India long lasting at least for next 10 to 15 years.
Marti is doing right now only one job that is in Bhutan where we are doing drilling and blasting. We are hopeful of getting few hydro, metro and railway tunnel jobs. We are vying for all kinds of projects because we are looking for the challenging jobs where our technology can bring in some changes basically.