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India’s Master Builder…
For 50 years, A Ramakrishna (AR) was closely involved with the evolution of India’s construction industry. His tenure with L&T ECC from the time he joined soon after taking his post graduate degree in structural engineering from the College of Engineering, Guindy in the 1960s, to his retirement, f

The giant corporate L&T had a turnover of Rs 72,724 crore last year. There have been very few large, sophisticated projects, be they relate to factories and buildings, sea ports and airports, steel plants and other industrial projects, roads and bridges, railways, sports complexes, hotels and multi specialty hospitals, IT parks, name it and you have it, with which L&T has not been associated. As one can understand, these construction jobs had undergone spectacular improvements in terms of design, engineering and construction.

AR had been associated closely with this evolution and has made rich contribution to it. A measure of this is evident from the growth recorded by L&T ECC under his stewardship during 1992-2004: the revenue of ECC grew close to 15 times from Rs 440 crore to Rs 6500 crore; profits grew from Rs 18 crore to Rs 250 crore ! This record continues; with the construction business accounting for a major share of L&T’s revenues and projects.

 

Construction in record time…

I have had the privilege of interacting with AR for nearly four decades. Quite a few of these were at the time of commissioning of prestigious projects like a blast furnace at the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant. On another occasion, I chanced to travel with him from Frankfurt to Chennai on a Lufthansa flight. That was the time when L&T ECC constructed a stadium for holding the world cup cricket match at Kensignton Oval, Barbados, West Indies. AR explained in detail the challenges involved in completing the project to a tight schedule at a place 10,000 miles away! The stadium was got ready in time for the world cup match!


Recourse to modern design and technology

AR underwent specialised training in structural design and engineering. The 18 month course at the then German Democratic Republic enabled AR to gain proficiency in German language and also to work with German institutions on state-of-the-art construction techniques. Regular visits to the giant construction fair Bauma and his other frequent trips to Germany enabled him to adopt several of the emerging practices. AR specialised in pre-stressed concrete for composite construction and in introducing alternate designs that saved on original cost estimates. He once referred to the advantages of steam curing of pre-stressed rib slabs, a practice common in Germany.

Recourse to alternate designs opened up the scope for achieving handsome economies. AR pointed to the preference for steel structures in countries in Europe and Japan thanks to plentiful availability of steel. He found that concrete structures were more suitable, especially for coastal areas and for chemical and fertilizer plants that suffered corrosion. Concrete structures also saved 15-20 per cent on total cost, as steel was expensive. This technique became industry standard and was even adopted by international construction giants like Toyo Engineering.

 

Focus on skills development...

Skills development and training have been receiving attention at the national level only in recent years. ECC set up a well equipped centre at Manapakkam for training construction workers in a variety of skills. The Centre has comprehensive curriculum and training systems and sophisticated tools and equipment for training artisans in several centres spread across the country. Inhouse training facilities are provided to diploma holders and graduate engineers.

AR was closely involved in the IIT-M instituting a M-Tech programme on structural engineering; apart from imparting theory, the programme also provides for training at L&T sites. AR also took care to include financial and personnel management as part of the curriculum thus equipping the graduates to handle managerial functions.

 

Andhra’s chief architect

The humility and modesty of AR were extraordinary for a business leader of his eminence. His suave nature won the esteem of business honchos and administrators alike. Significantly, top industrial houses, including the Tatas and Reliance entrust all major jobs to L&T ECC as a matter of course. The political leadership in Andhra Pradesh made excellent use of the expertise of AR. The Construction Industry Training Centre was set up at Hyderabad. The Hi-Tech City, Hyderabad triggered the development of large IT infrastructure in the country (Murasoli Maran, then Minister of Industry, who inaugurated the Hi-Tech City was so much impressed, replicated the effort in constructing the Tidel Park, Chennai). L&T invested 89 per cent in the equity of Hi-Tech City which launched Hyderabad into the global IT software map. Hitex, the international exhibition centre at Hyderabad, is another of the several prestigious projects of L&T. The first modern airport in the country promoted by GMR at Hyderabad was again constructed by L&T (AR also opted for L&T to join the Bangalore International Airport as a promoter and partner).The second road linking Tirupathi to Tirumala was constructed by L&T-ECC in a record time. The present Rs 15,000 crore Hyderabad metro rail project is being constructed and will be operated by a subsidiary of L&T. All these huge economic activities of Hyderabad can be credited to the initiative of AR.

 

Intensely religious

AR was closely associated with the Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust. L&T ECC was entrusted with the construction jobs of the trust. These include modern hospitals, housing colonies and marriage halls. Sri Sai Baba also entrusted L&T ECC with the job of lining the Telugu Ganga Canal to help Chennai metro get precious drinking water from the Krishna river. He held AR in such affection that he presented him with a luxury car.

AR adapted quickly to the changes that flowed in cascades in the liberalisation era. L&T  ECC seized opportunities for constructing roads and bridges on build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis as concessionaires. Of course, it involved unknown risks like the initial resistance for paying tolls. I remember AR convincing political and administrative leaders on the need for such tolls. In quick time, the massive highway development programme adopted the BOT model as the standard.

 

Standardisation of construction techniques

AR was also involved in the setting up of the Construction Industry Development Council (CIDC) and was its first vice chairman. The rich expertise of L&T ECC and of AR in particular, was a big help in opting for standards in design and construction. Just look at the diseconomies and wastages suffered through lack of attention to standards in a sector that accounts for 40-50 per cent of capital expenditure of projects and massive employment of around 50 million!  

ECC standardised form works, shuttering, and concreting. AR worked consistently on educating and lobbying for the use of ready-mix concrete which ensured the right mix and consistent quality. L&T, at that time a large producer of cement, also set up dozens of RMC plants. AR can take credit for the use of RMC gaining wide acceptance in quick time. Familiar with the speed of construction in developed countries, AR once remarked: “our roads, bridges over level crossings and other projects can be standardised to some four or five basic designs. If this is done, we can complete a bridge over a railway level crossing in six months instead of the more than three years taken now!”

L&T ECC has completed large housing

projects in short time. AR pointed to his company constructing 10,000 primary school buildings in different locations in Gujarat; at an average construction time of just 80 days per school thanks to extensive standardisation.

When in 2002, IE mooted a consortium of L&T-BHEL-Neyveli Lignite Corporation-Ennore Port-TNEB to look at the possibility of constructing a 1000 MW power plant at the Ennore Port abandoned by Videocon, AR evinced great interest. The chairmen/chief executives also showed interest in this new concept of the five specialist institutions coming together to pool their expertise in rapidly building power generation capacity. AR was open for such new ideas, willing to experiment and risk. The several special purpose vehicles promoted by his company helped expand its activities and increase revenues and profits mani’ fold.

A matter for disappointment is the lack of recognition on the part of Delhi and the state governments to the multifarious contributions made by AR, many of which were of a pioneering nature. Tamil Nadu leadership has been focusing largely on politics, films and social issues of mass appeal. Sadly in this the invaluable contribution made by business leaders, professionals, scientists and academics are not receiving the attention they deserve.

Just think of this Mr Builder not considered for a Padma Award! 

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