Contractors' shoddy job on pumping stations is putting Mumbai at risk

Updated: Dec 04, 2014, 10:30 IST | Sharad Vyas |

Construction of two storm-water pumping stations at Cleveland Bunder and Lovegrove in Worli is riddled with structural flaws, use of sub-par material, and many other irregularities, reveals RTI

If there’s a recurrence of the great deluge — aka the 26/7 Mumbai floods — you should know that some sly contractors, under the tutelage of politicians and bureaucrats, have done all within their power to drown you. 

Lovegrove pumping station at Dr Annie Besant Road, Worli. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

A mid-day investigation has revealed that while a consortium of contractors is getting a free hand in building shoddy storm water pumping stations — Mumbai’s vital defences against flash floods — the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has acted against the negligence with at least one hand tied behind its back. It is these entities that should be held responsible for constructing a second-rate flood defence despite the government spending crores on calamity control since 2005.

Documents accessed by mid-day under the Right To Information (RTI) Act expose poor planning, design and construction of the two crucial stations at Lovegrove and Cleveland Bunder, commissioned in 2011.

Their construction and execution have countless anomalies. At times, the contractor used sub-standard material, often sourced from unlisted suppliers, and violated many tender conditions, not only causing the civic exchequer losses, but also putting lives at risk.

For all the norms it flouted, the consortium M/s Unity/M&P/WPK drew inconsistent bills on the corporation, manipulated progress reports and site diaries — which underscore lack of safety measures at the site leading to several landslides — and deployed inadequate manpower and material for nearly three years since the projects commenced.

Despite all this, the consortium has not been blacklisted, even as the BMC twice came close to filing an FIR against the group this year.

The FIR threat was first issued earlier this year to the consortium for failing to remove a cofferdam — a temporary enclosure built in a water body to allow for a dry work environment — at Lovegrove, which nearly caused flooding during the monsoon.

An application to file FIR was submitted in May by the civic executive engineer (storm water drains or SWD department), directing criminal action against managing director of Unity Infrastructure Kishor Avarsekar, vice-chairman Abhijit Avarsekar and project manager Nitin Parmane.

But the draft was put in abeyance, even as a defiant contractor did not fully remove the coffer, causing waterlogging in several crowded localities of Central Mumbai.

The second FIR threat came with a notice served on June 19, for recovery of liquidity damages (LD) amounting to R19 crore. The LD — 20% of the total project cost of R116 crore — appeared to be a huge liability on a consortium claiming to be running losses.

“You did not complete the project before May 2014... In case of flooding in six major spots in this catchment... BMC is constraint (sic) to lodge an FIR for damages to public property and inconvenience to citizens. These damages will be recovered from your other projects, and no future projects would be awarded to you,” reads the notice.

However, BMC did not bother to check that its contract with Unity had no provision for LD recovery: the second FIR was also never filed. Meanwhile, waterlogging was reported from catchment areas in Maulana Azad Road, Keshav Rao Khade Marg, Dadasaheb Bhadkamkar Marg, Anandrao Nair Marg, Patthe Bapurao Marg and Sane Guruji Road.

Lovegrove pumping station was commissioned in November, 2011 at a cost of R116.85 crore 

BMC turns a blind eye
So far, the BMC has maintained the public line that the two projects were getting delayed due to land and rehabilitation issues, while the consortium blamed its purported financial mess. The facts, however, tell a different story: the utter negligence by the consortium led by Unity, a company which was under the scanner for dragging road works at a criminally slow pace in Nagpur last year, poor construction during the 2008 Pune Commonwealth Youth Games, and construction of Cooper Hospital, with cost escalation of nearly R76 crore due to a delay of more than one and a half years.

The mess-ups did not deter the BMC from approving mobilisation advances to the consortium. It even cleared bills that showed inconsistencies. The consortium held back bank guarantees or BGs (which work as safety deposits and can be seized to recover losses in case the contractor fails to perform) for 16 months; meanwhile, payments were released by BMC to consultants M/s MWH even before the work on site started.

Case in point: The first running account bill in the Lovegrove project — of R1,67,75,160 — was held back by BMC because there were serious questions surrounding the contractor’s claims. But it was later passed, on December 26, 2012, without any site measurement sheets — documents detailing how much work has been done — to substantiate expense claims. The first bill for MWH of R97 lakh for the first quarter in 2012 was released by the BMC before the construction had even started. These points were marked out by auditors in several reports.

When the consortium did submit BGs, they were from a bank not notified in the contract condition. “For 16 months you did not submit BGs, which shows you are not serious in completing the work,” reads an internal audit note that took serious note of these anomalies.

“We have booked companies for failing to submit BGs, but this contractor was allowed to get away for a long time as nobody wanted to hold him accountable for non-performance,” said a senior IPS officer working in the Maharashtra Anti-Corruption Bureau.

Fudged records
The R218.64-crore pumping projects were awarded to the Unity-led consortium in November 2011 on 8,704 sq m of land at Worli. The stations, expected to cover city’s biggest drain catchment (865 hectares) with 30 flooding spots, were expected to be completed in 15 months, but got a generous deadline extension on October 5, 2013, and again on May 14, 2014.

Their current status: 47% completion at Lovegrove and less than 15% at Cleveland. As things stand, it looks unlikely they will meet the new deadline in December 2014.

From day one, the planning of the project was inadequate, so much so that BMC had to call for 19 review meetings between 2013 and 2014 to take stock of progress even as it had appointed private consultant MWH to monitor the work.

But the consortium kept giving new dates without taking any concrete action, with BMC serving six show-cause notices in 2014 alone: February 10, February 20, March 4, April 4 and 11, and 15. Two visits and notices by the municipal commissioner in December 2013 and March 2014, too, did not make any difference. The overall progress of the projects remained at 39.05% as on March 2014, lagging behind by 3,464 days, and merited a penalty of R19 lakh for various violations in Lovegrove alone. Several crucial engineering designs — as many as 85 — were not submitted for BMC’s approval in this phase, which means work was often done without civic supervision or mandate.

This was noted in various reports, and in fact, the first bricks of Lovegrove compound walls were laid without BMC’s approval of the plans. An internal report noted that contractors started the hazardous work of ‘excavation in pump house area’ on December 1, 2011, without submission of basic drawings and details of the site. “It was as if the civic officials had abdicated their responsibilities while they blindly left supervision work to a private consultant. This has been the undoing of these projects as work was never carried out in a homogeneous manner,” said Ratna Mahale, corporator from Worli Police Camp.

Several instances of fudging of records were noticed in the documents. Worse, the deadline of the project was, at one point, theoretically moved down by the contractor by four months without informing BMC: from June 2013 to October 2013. “This is not proper and we have informed the consortium about it, but they haven’t made the changes yet,” noted an internal note. Other manipulations in the documents continued unabated; in December the overall progress at Lovegrove was reported to be 10.86% by the consultants even as the BMC pegged it at 7.45%.

Until March 2012, the contractor had not submitted the correct work schedule, complete drawings, hydraulic designs and study details. The same year, they did not carry out work for three months. BMC noted that despite removal of hutments at Cleveland and the handing over of the site, the contractor did not submit a layout drawing, and staff was not appointed by March 2012. “If they don’t improve performance in the next one month, action like termination of contract or blacklisting must be initiated,” said a departmental report.

The contractor did not do the work for timely import of pumps from Korea. The consortium promised to supply pumps of Korean make in May 2013, but the manufacturer informed that Unity consortium did not submit the necessary Letter of Credit, and so pumps were not dispatched. Therefore, even by April 2014 the pumps hadn’t arrived in Mumbai. “A general date was given of June 2014, but that seems to be a vague statement,” said additional municipal commissioner SVR Srinivas in a meeting. It did not even conduct performance testing of six pumps at Haji Ali, which had an effect on other pumps as they were to be accepted on the basis of the performance of the former. Once again, the BMC threatened to blacklist the contractor.

Low-quality material
An internal SWD report in 2012 noted that the civil structure at Lovegrove was developing cracks at various places and at bottom beds, and resulting in leakage of water during high tide.

When a vigilance team visited the site on April 21 and May 5, 2014, it found glaring anomalies at Lovegrove. The team conducted fresh tests. It was also found that the contractor purposely did not keep records of silt register or records related to site testing laboratory; was carrying out foundation work with unsoaked bricks; indulging in poor masonry and column foundation; and using Kota stone tiles of sub-par quality.

The team noticed cracks in the DG (diesel generator) house staircase, damaged edges of chhajja, and poor brick masonry, due to which the plaster was not bonding. A penalty of R20.85 lakh was slapped for lapses. Auditors established that the Lovegrove work was lagging behind by a shocking 1,558 days as on April 2014.

Throughout 2012, various material tests found that the crush sand being used was failing in sieve analysis tests. The site diaries, when checked by mid-day, mentioned in May 2013 that during reinforcement of the DG house a deep vertical cut of 10 metres was noticed for over two months. The diaries also mentioned frequent deviation from approved plans: it was observed that repair of Atria mall’s compound wall and construction of Miter gate was not according to approved methods,” noted a vigilance report of April 2013.

During the same period, Corporator Ratna Mahale wrote to the chief engineer of the SWD department, raising serious questions about the quality of materials being used by the contractor. “The quality of the material used at Lovegrove station is way too cheap, and this material is not of standard quality, thus it appears that this work will not be strong enough for future. I request you to stop this work immediately and take action,” the letter written in May 2013 states.

But Mahale was told that the quality was checked as per tender specifications.

When Mahale visited the spot, she found that not only was the material poor in quality, even support pillars were constructed in a hazardous manner, compromising safety.

“If anything goes wrong in this project, many people must be held responsible, including BMC officials who did not supervise the work and gave this contractor a free hand to mess up the project,” she told mid-day.

Faulty design
After almost one and a half years, over 80 designs, drawings and performance charts had not been submitted by Unity, and many of those submitted were of poor quality, having a cascading effect on the quality of construction, internal reports noted.

The contractor did not even submit a performance bar chart for two years, claiming delays in working out technicalities. However, documents show that these mechanics had already been mentioned in the tender document signed in 2011 between BMC and the consortium.

An internal note of the SWD department in June read: “Civil and mechanical drawings of Lovegrove and Cleveland were lacking even the basic engineering standards; several of them had to be rejected summarily, leading to major delays on part of the contractor.”

The consortium frequently toyed with the performance chart, which is crucial in mapping progress.

Meanwhile, the consultant MWH stopped going to the site. Several internal reports pointed out how progress reports were submitted to BMC without the consultant staff’s actually visiting the site.

Dubious vendors?
The consortium continued sourcing material from vendors with no proper credentials or background; some did not exist on the list approved by the corporation. This made quality control nearly impossible for BMC and MWH.

According to documents, the consortium failed to get timely approval for a total of 31 vendors or sub-contractor, some of whom were picked based on dodgy paperwork and permission of BMC. In January 2013, the consortium submitted a list of vendors, but no technical details were provided for BMC to do a scrutiny.

The contractor sub-let another work to vendor Sterling-Wilson for supplying DG set and panels. It turned out the vendor did not have adequate financial credentials, but the consortium kept insisting even as Sterling’s balance sheet showed losses when assessed by the BMC. “There was a rampant practice of getting the approval first, and requesting a change of vendor later. This hampered the progress of work,” reads an internal report from July 2013. The specific instances where vendor changes were demanded were for DG set and panels, and crane works.

Safety lapses
The internal reports obtained by mid-day highlight the contractor’s disregard for safety measures, so much that at various stages, lives of labour and citizens in the vicinity of the project were at risk. Over the course of work since 2012, the project witnessed two major landslides, causing loss of property. At other times, there was flooding inside the pump stations.

A departmental report from this year noted that the contractor did not deploy any safety measures at the two stations for the past two years. The first signs of this apathy were seen on March 9, 2013, when the compound wall behind Atria mall collapsed due to excavation work carried out by the contractor. This also damaged a nine-inch sewer line and waterline to the nearby Royal Garden Society, municipal schools and municipal staff quarters for three weeks.

Electricity supply to the mall was imperiled as cracks and disturbances were found in the foundation of the transformer and DG set in the basement. But this did not bother the contractor.

The collapse was the responsibility of the contractor, as documents show BMC as well as the mall management had sent warnings in advance. The mall’s warning came two months in advance on January 4: “The wall of our premises has developed major cracks, and is also damaging the transformer and breaker. Please find a solution or until then don’t carry out work in our premises, or you will be responsible for any deaths and damages,” a letter from the management reads.

On March 7, 2013, the BMC wrote a warning note asking the contractor to take precautions to ‘protect the foundations of the adjoining Atria mall, and give proper slope to the adjoining earth to avoid any sliding.’

After all these tragic lapses, a mere fine of R25,000 was imposed on the contractor for not putting in place post-disaster measures.

“The consortium failed to take safety measures like backfilling by gunny bags, and also has not submitted any plans of repairing the collapsed wall, water line or construction work for reinstatement,” read a BMC notice of March 20.
Later, a team of safety experts blamed Unity for putting several lives in danger.

“Despite repeated warnings, the contractor did not carry out work with proper planning and due care for safety of the work location. The collapse damaged the pavement in mall, dangerously risking transformer and junction box of mall, while these cracks continue to widen, nothing was done,” reads another report from the same year.

These were not the only warnings. Many more cautionary notes were delivered at the contractors’ doorstep for causing flood-like situations and creating a bottleneck in the catchment of Lovegrove for two years. But these did little to avoid the flood situation.

A civic site inspection report of April 30, 2012 noticed that due to construction activities in the main course of nullah, bottlenecks and obstructions had formed, causing rising of water levels upstream of both the nullahs, and if such a situation persisted at Lovegrove, there would be flooding in the island city this monsoon.

In 2014, Saurin Patel, managing director of Michigan Engineers, a firm that widened the drains on E Moses Road and Racecourse, warned civic officials that they would not work at full capacity in the last monsoon and that outfalls at Worli were so badly silted that the drains were emptying at a lower level than the outfall, leading to reverse flow in the drain. “We fear that during monsoon, these drains will not be able to serve the city to their designed capacity. The city must immediately take steps to desilt the outfall with great scrutiny,” Patel, said in a letter.

In further abandon, the contractor refused to remove a concrete cofferdam in 2012, and then again in 2014. The dam obstructed the nullah flow, waterlogging many lanes. It led to a flood-like situation in Central Mumbai, but despite FIR threats from BMC, the contractor did not fully remove the dam. Both the warnings were served in the April of 2012 and 2014, but to no avail.

An application to file an FIR was drafted in 2014. It said that while the coffer was necessary during construction, it should have been removed every May. But the contractor did not do so, causing possibility of flooding and loss of human lives. “While the contractor had started the work of removal, it cannot be completed before monsoon. Since they have failed, a sanction is sought to lodge an FIR against their staff,” reads a draft. The shoddy work caused damage to roads, pollution, rash driving, and even theft on site due to lack of security. “The debris is lying all over, causing air pollution and health hazards to the people around, and large unruly vehicles are putting lives at danger.”

Unity infrastructure under scanner
1. Unity Infra faced flak for a road project in Nagpur, where by Aug 2014, it had completed only 4.5 km of the total 25.93 km of work for which the deadline was June, 2013. The Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) slapped a penalty of R6.5 crore, but an arbitrator reversed the decision and instead asked the NMC to pay R8 crore in compensation, ensuring a R50 crore setback to the civic exchequer. The opposition called it one of the biggest scams in NMC’s history

2. During the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, a performance audit report raised questions on the tendering process for construction of 2 new hostels and a three-star hotel inside the Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex, Balewadi. The audit found ‘serious deficiencies with regard to the construction of the hotel.’
Furthermore, the tendering process for the hotel was found ‘severely flawed’ as conditions were relaxed, ‘purportedly on grounds of lack of response’ to deter other bidders. The audit noted: “The contract was awarded on a single financial bid to Unity Infra Projects with NPV far below that recommended by the Finance Department. Further, the developer paid only the first installment of the annual premium... and
no penal action has been taken against it.”

3. Cooper Hospital, Mumbai was slated for completion in 2011, with an initial budget
of R250 crore. But it was completed in 2014 at an escalated cost of R325.6 cr.

Unity Infra: background
Unity was started by BMC engineer Kishore Avarsekar in 1997 and, thanks to political aegis, rose to mercurial heights in just a few years. Avarsekar’s proximity to saffron parties ensured his rise once the Shiv Sena-BJP govt came to power in Maharashtra in 1999. “At one point in the 1990s the company alone was handling R3,000 crore worth of projects from Mumbai city,” said an observer in the BMC. The promoters were, however, involved in infrastructure through Unity Construction Company, which had been in existence since 1979. In 1983, Avarsekar was admitted as a partner in this firm, and his sons Abhijit and Ashish, and wife Pushpa were all enrolled in the firm.

The firm took on big projects, starting with Abhyudaya bank building, Vashi (1983) and Wainganga high-rise, Worli (1985). It also bagged R147.82-crore public works from the Centre for remodelling Dhyan Chand Stadium for CWG 2010, and a R77-crore tender from Thane Municipal Corporation. In 2009, it got an order of
R325.23-crore worth of projects from MCGM. 

The other side
Asked for an explanation about the delay in the works, Unity Infrastructure stated in its letter to the BMC:
“Our company has a proven track record of successfully completing all the prestigious projects assigned to us in the past; we nearly completed the Cooper hospital project in a short period of time despite the fact that dues amounting to R20 crore are held up. The work and quality of construction was appreciated by all including Uddhav Thackeray at the time of inauguration on November 30, 2013. However, at present we are facing serious financial constraints and you know the company has to go for a Corporate Debt Restructuring (CDR), and the process of CDR by RBI may take another two months’ time. We are not able to get institutional finance until the CDR process is over. We are getting support from various government organisations by way of special advance against bank guarantee for our ongoing projects, the intervening period until our CDR is cleared. For the BMC pumping station projects, instead of getting financial support our problems are compounded as substantial payment is held up by the corporation on various grounds. Our dues amounting to R52.63 crore, and further compensation for delay for R46 crore have been levied.

The progress of work in these projects is suffering badly for want of funds. The progress is affected by lack of payment, and on top of that a penalty for delay is creating a vicious cycle for us. These levies of penalties and other deductions account now for almost 65% of the bill value, and we are left with only 35% of the amount for ourselves. Under these circumstances it is impossible to execute this work, and we are in urgent need of your help to come out of this problem and complete the project expeditiously.”

A week ago, we sent a questionnaire concerning the construction discrepancies and related matters to Unity Infrastructure, but the firm’s management hasn’t yet responded.

Cleveland Bunder pumping station
This is the second-largest catchment of Mumbai; has Dadar on its north and Worli on its south, and it’s the mud flats between the islands of Bombay. This is also the most flooded area in Mumbai and affects the arterial Dadar railway station.

Name of contractor: Unity Infrastructure
Time period: 15 months (excluding monsoon)
Work Awarded: 29.09.2011
Cost of the project: R102.36 crore
Area: 4,400 sq m
Catchment area: 465 hectares
Drain network: 3,792 m
Required pumping: 42 cubic metre/sec
Required pumps: 7 with 6,000 litres/sec each
Areas affected by floods: Dadar Market, Dadar railway station, Bhavani Shankar Road, Fitwala Lane, Sun Mill Lane, Pandurang Budhkar Marg, Senapati Bapat Road, Elphinstone Road, Drainage Channel Road, N M Joshi Marg, Shankarrao Naram Path, Shiv Ram Amrutwar Path, Dadasaheb Phalke Marg, Sanapati Bapat Road, Gokhale Road Junction and Kamgar Nagar Junction

Lovegrove pumping station
Name of contractor: Unity Infrastructure
Time period: 15 months (excluding rains)
Work awarded: 23.11.2011
Cost of the project: R116.85 crore
Area: 4,305 sq m
Catchment area: 400 hectare
Required pumping: 42 cubic metre/sec
Required pumps: 5 with 6,000 litres/sec each

How a pumping station works: The stations have three main functions: tidal control, gravity discharge and pumping of storm water. During low tide, the tidal gates are opened to drain out storm water into the sea by gravity, and during high tide the gates are closed to prevent back entry of seawater. Now, during high tide, when the gates
are closed and when it is raining, the pumps are operated. Water in the inlet channel is maintained at a certain level to make sure that the inlet can receive storm water and discharge it by pumping, even during a high tide combined with rains.

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