Participation in a recent cycling event provided me with a wonderful morning enriched by time-agnostic political class, sporting spirit agnostic traffic and, most interestingly, roads built by bitumen-agnostic contractors.
Bitumen is a sticky hydrocarbon and not exactly a subject that can hold one’s attention for long enough in normal circumstances, but not a minute was lost in the 50 KM ride when one did not lament its loss. With a lot of time at hand, and a dire need to divert my mind from the largest muscle in human body, I pondered over the amazing engineering skills exhibited across India by miracle workers we call civil contractors.
Engineering, across the world is assumed to be a branch of science; while, in India, we have seen through the lie spread by engineers and proven that it is a branch of commerce with no connection with science. This great insight has allowed our R&B department to discover a new branch of civil engineering that I would like to proclaim as L1 engineering.
L1 is a great achievement of our civilization. It is a single concept that best quantifies Indian understanding of science and the professionals that are engaged in it. For those uninitiated, L1 stands for the lowest bid received in any government tender. L1 is literally the last word, the auditor’s darling, a sacrosanct word in construction contracting processes that decides who gets to build India. India as you see around you today is, well, a L1 country.
As government spends tax-payers’ hard-earned money, the idea of using it with utmost thrift looks very appealing. But, while it looks good on paper, the practical reality of L1 needs serious thinking, as it is actually resulting in complete disregard for science and is an insult of civil engineering profession.
Elsewhere in the world, civil engineering is an exact science where construction of a wall uses precise amount of cement, sand etc.. As prices of these items are also easy to deduce, costs in a civil engineering project are no mystery. At some point in history, even India believed in this and that is why our public works departments, too, have Schedule of Rates (SoR) that are worked out using science of engineering to find true cost of every item.
Unfortunately, at some point in history, we decided that our engineers are not men of science but cheats that can’t be trusted and hence taking their word for cost of any construction item is wrong. Today we opt for price discovery to find out how much would a wall cost, and viola! We have magicians replacing engineers who can construct the same wall with same material often at 25% less than that calculated in SoR.
The idea of L1 is actually a slander on our engineers. We are refusing to accept their technical word. This is resonated in the fact that, even after 60 years of independence, we have not even enacted Engineers Act. We have no respect for the science because we work on the presumption that professionals- technocrats accountable to society- are unicorns.
The idea of L1 is, probably, the biggest systemic problem in India as it has resulted in extremely substandard infrastructure building, if not corruption and crime. It has come about only because we have become blind to science of engineering and turned it into commerce. The way to correct this is to allow engineers to function as professionals. We must trust word of science instead of believing in absurd numbers churned up by price discovery.
Empowered and accountable professionals are an absolute necessity, especially when we are building the nation. A quality nation can’t be built using L1. We need engineers to build it.