Stage Set for Revival?

As the GDP figures of 5.7 per cent appeared in the press, the murmurs began. GST was already making lives difficult for the traders and businessmen, and the ghosts of demonetisation had not completely vanished yet. The evidence of the economy sputtering emboldened the critics and turned the loyalists into skeptics. The government too moved at an amazing speed having realised that the wolves were beginning to bay for their blood. Establishment of the PM Economic Council was announced, and then, within a fortnight, a massive infusion of reforms was launched.

The Rs 6.92 trillion road network of 83,677 km, on the back of the GST reform, can be a potent economic multiplier in times to come. The road construction push includes the Bharatmala Pariyojana with an investment of Rs 5.35 trillion to construct 34,800 km. In addition, Rs 1.57 trillion will be spent on the construction of 48,877 km by NHAI and MoRTH. That said, NHAI has been made the nodal body to ensure timely execution. Financing is innovatively being raised by monetising road assets worth Rs 34,000 crore from 82 operating highways under the TOT model.

Further, the bank recapitalisation plan of Rs 2.11 trillion over the next two years, in a bid to clean banks’ books and revive investment, is a timely move. With this, the projects that will be put to bid can be funded by banks giving a boost to credit disbursal, which has fallen abysmally low.

Besides roads, the next biggest business opportunity has become the Metro-Rail project execution. Over Rs 2 trillion of business is up for grabs over the next few years with Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) itself contributing Rs 1.5 trillion. Metro projects with a total length of 370 km are operational in eight cities. Further, metro projects with a total length of 537 km are in progress in 13 cities. New cities acquiring metro services include Hyderabad (71 km), Nagpur (38 km), Ahmedabad (36 km), Pune (31.25 km) and Lucknow (23 km). Last month, the government introduced a New Metro Policy that focuses on giving clarity on the development of projects, collaborations, participation, standardising norms, financing, and creating a procurement mechanism to implement projects effectively.

Although the timing of the announcements may be scheduled to ensure that the economic agenda reaches a crescendo just before the elections, the forthcoming calendar year 2018 can be extremely rewarding with most contracts getting to fruition during this period.

After a long hiatus, the stage seems set for a revival and if the land acquisition hurdle can be overcome, we are headed for a frenetic pace ahead.

PRIME THE PUMP

Earlier in May, when I had asked Sajjan Jindal, chief of JSW – the group with the best appetite for capital investment – when the private sector would begin investing, he had replied that we were poised for an imminent renewal in sentiment for private investment. Recently, Ajay Piramal, head of Piramal Group and Shriram Group, reflected that a higher GDP number would initiate private investment flow into the economy. And, the World Bank projects that gross fixed capital formation (GFCF), which indicates investment demand in the economy, will grow by 6.8 per cent in FY18 and 8.8 per cent in FY19.

However, the situation appears to be suboptimal currently. According to CMIE, announcements of new industrial and infrastructural projects remained muted in the first quarter of 2017-18. Only 448 projects were announced during the quarter. This is the lowest quarterly project announcement seen since June 2014, the time when the last capex cycle bottomed out. Further, the completion of projects has dipped over previous consecutive quarters. Lower project initiation and a falling commissioning rate will be a double whammy – the only way to change this situation is to enhance the rate of commissioning of the project pipeline and, at the same time, improve the launch of new infrastructure projects. Stalled projects have also not seen any significant resolution. Ideally, the current government is in the best position to resolve and move this rapidly. If the RBI has recognised the need to resolve the mountain of debt through insolvency resolution professionals, why not seek help in resolving stalled projects too?

Foreign funds are keen to invest in toll-operate-transfer (TOT) projects so they can realise the toll yields on completed projects. Hence, NHAI is preparing to offer such completed projects and generate liquidity. Further, the Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code will help quicker consolidation as companies find a solution for bailing out. L&T’s results also indicate that larger companies with stronger balance sheets can take on the burden of stressful financial cycles as contracting for infrastructure is essentially becoming a big boys’ game. There is a need for out-of-the-box solutions to resolve the infrastructure growth gridlock.

So, if private investment is yet to make its mark, what is keeping our engines sputtering if not humming? Public spending. Government spending grew by 13 per cent, year-on-year, in the two months April-May 2017 to touch Rs 4.6 lakh crore against Rs 2.9 lakh crore in April-May 2016. Capital expenditure for infrastructure creation and other assets rose 63 per cent in April-May to Rs 54,000 crore from Rs 33,000 crore in the same two months a year ago. With GST affecting working capital cycles, government spending will be needed to keep the economy pumped up.

Is the economic miracle a mirage

In the December quarter, the construction sector took a hit. The average net revenue of 156 firms in the mid and large-sized category, excluding L&T, fell by 9 per cent YoY. Road developers took a hit on account of toll collections, which were suspended for three weeks. Orders across infrastructure sector slid several notches. The road sector itself, as reported earlier in this column, has not been able to achieve its targets.

NHAI and the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had awarded projects of about 3,200 km and 3,100 km, respectively, till mid-February. NHAI had watered down its forecast for FY17 from 10,000 km to 6,700 km. In nine months of FY17, the NHAI awards have dwindled by 8 per cent YoY. While the new hybrid annuity model (HAM) had many takers owing to PPP, lenders are reluctant given the overhang of past record liabilities. As per reports, only 15 of the 35 projects awarded under HAM have achieved financial closure and some have even been cancelled. Even if we factor in an achievement confidence index of 40 per cent on projected estimates, the aspirational scale is so huge that anything over 40 per cent would add a welcome spur to economic growth. As per Nitin Gadkari, Minister of MoRTH & Shipping, a national perspective plan under the Sagarmala project has been prepared and projects worth Rs 8 lakh crore have been identified. This can accelerate momentum in trade as with a 7,500-km coastline, our country transports only 6 per cent of its cargo through waterways compared to around 55 per cent on roadways and 35 per cent by the railways. As a result, logistic costs as a percentage of GDP is as high as 19 per cent compared to 12.5 per cent in China.

On the brighter side, the process to expedite government spending is in the works. With four more states falling with the ruling party, the agenda of development will step up activity locally. Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur and Goa will toe the Centre’s diktat of development. The state budgets and their policies reflect the urgency to transform. This is evident from policies being introduced in creating a better business environment in Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The most notable among the reforms are related to land and its use. Unlocking land for commercial and industrial use will lead to increase in economic activity.

If bad bank loans can now find a solution, we may return to an easy money era that would accelerate return on capital and bring back private investors. Only then will we be set for an economic miracle.

Set for growth

Last month, in a swift move at the recommendation of  NITI Aayog, the government reversed the misery of construction and infrastructure companies. In this column last month, I had pitched for a resolution to the impasse on matters stuck in arbitration, disputes and appeals. So while the ruling has now provided that the company in question is not squeezed to death of its finances and left to dry, and this takes care of the financial disease such companies come down with, the core attitudinal shift causing this legal pileup has not been addressed.

That said, the ruling has led to the rerating of construction and infrastructure stocks at the bourses. Companies planning InvITs will see better valuations. Huge funds are likely to come back into the system to companies like HCC, Patel Engineering, Sadbhav, IRB, etc. While this augurs well for equipment companies, there is also likely to be a shift in the list of bidders for EPC and hybrid annuity contracts issued by MoRTH
and NHAI.

Meanwhile, real-estate companies are experiencing rough weather as the consumer protection movement is gaining momentum. Several companies like Unitech, Supertech and Parsvanath have been instructed by courts to return the money invested by those who have booked flats where either the companies have not presented a ´true and fair´ picture of the offering when they raised investments from buyers or violated deadlines for delivery. The Real Estate Regulation Act (RERA) has sent a shiver down the spines of developers as rulings have begun to send developer after developer behind bars for violations and misrepresentations, non-delivery and unfair practices. Consolidation is already in progress in this sector as several stressed developers have made alliances with financially stronger partners to bail them out. Ajay Piramal´s real-estate fund initiatives have rescued many of them too. New money is coming in under changed conditions seeking fresh rules for play.

The Smart Cities mission has released 27 additional cities, taking the total number of cities selected under the mission to 60. The new cities are from 12 states and have proposed to invest a total of Rs 66,883 crore under their respective city development plans. The amount includes Rs 42,524 crore in area-based development (79 per cent of the total) and Rs 11,379 crore (21 per cent) in technology-based pan-city solutions. With this, the total investment proposed for the 60 cities selected has now gone up to Rs 144,742 crore. Several of these cities are now readying DPRs; RFPs for some projects have already been readied and launched by Pune, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, etc. Another Rs 45,935 crore has been approved by the Ministry of Urban Development under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). In addition to 68 projects launched in 14 smart cities this June, another 134 projects have been identified, of which 114 are under bidding. The pace of urban renewal has been stepped up under these initiatives and is likely to accelerate in the coming year.

Growth has been initiated by eliminating bottlenecks and making structural changes. Liquidity released through the Pay Commission, OROP and government spending will add to the buoyancy likely to emerge as a result of the above normal monsoon, which will hopefully provide a bountiful harvest in the coming season. Obstacles are being eased with the initiatives enumerated above and the scenario is set for a revival. It indeed augurs well for the festive season ahead  Happy Diwali!

Unclogging legal and land blocks

NITI Aayog is finally fixing the loose ends with the construction matrix to allow the multiplier effect to breathe its magical effect across the economy. It is putting together a policy to remove hurdles for projects where contractors are locked in arbitration with government agencies so that 75 per cent of the funds would be released to banks in cases where there is unanimous award in favour of a contractor. This will help release funds and revive stalled projects. Close to Rs 3.6 lakh crore is locked up in such cases and banks will see their performance improve even if a part of the funds is released.

According to a survey by research agency Daksh, if one has a case pending in any of the subordinate courts in the country, the average time in which a decision is likely to be made is nearly six years. Even assuming that a case does not go to the Supreme Court, an average litigant who appeals to at least one higher court is likely to spend more than 10 years in court. Now, an underlying informal rule exists within the government department that is causing a huge bottleneck in judgements and awards. A large portion of the ´pending cases backlog´ originates from the fact that all judgements issued against government departments are appealed against, as a standard practice. This is so much of a hard rule that if a government officer does not follow suit, he fears that the Vigilance Commission may come after him. This not only delays justice, even in genuine cases, but clogs the judiciary system unnecessarily. Arbitration awards are also the victim of this informal ´standard rule´.

The new arbitration act has come into effect from October 23, 2015, which allows the awardee of the arbitration the fruits of the award after three months even though an application has been filed objecting to the award, unless the court issues a stay on the award. Considering almost Rs 3 lakh crore is stuck in disputes and arbitration (as per ASSOCHAM, it is closer to Rs 5 lakh crore; just consider that the amount stuck in arbitration and disputes with NHAI alone is Rs 23,000 crore), the new act may help resolve conflicts swiftly. But unless we arrest the root of the higher flow of arbitration cases, namely the ´standard rule´, we will be swimming against the tide.

Another factor strangulating growth is the escalating cost of land and delays caused in land acquisition. Data by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways shows that during 2015-16, NHAI paid Rs 19,020 crore to acquire 9,285 hectare. This is the most it has paid out by way of compensation in one year compared to disbursements in the past five years. In the last fiscal, NDA paid an average of Rs 2 crore per hectare compared to Rs 1.35 crore per hectare in 2014-15.

Here, renting land for infrastructure projects is a viable and practical solution. It will help save capital by not requiring a large amount of money to be locked up and save time in purchase and the entire process of land acquisition, thereby fast-tracking projects. (According to recent estimates, the capex for land alone for road projects is Rs 185,000 crore.). Some industries already follow the model of leasing land instead of acquiring it. Oil and gas extraction and renewable energy projects usually follow the land-lease model. Land pooling used by Magarpatta city a decade ago and, more recently, by Andhra capital Amaravati, by CIDCO for the Navi Mumbai International Airport and by the Maharashtra Government for the Mumbai-Nagpur road corridor offer examples of how both delays and capex commitment can be lowered.

Indeed, it is time to unclog the arteries for the economic lifeblood to flow unfettered to make India vibrant and reach its growth goals.

And in this issue, understanding the growth goals across Tier-II and Tier-III cities, and consequently the growth in their building and design needs, the second decade and the 11th edition of the CW Architect and Builder Awards – CWAB 2.0 – introduced a whole new category of Noteworthy Projects. Through this category, we recognised the work being done across sectors – interiors, retail, commercial, residential, institutional and hospitality – and a whole new set of winners took centrestage with India´s Top Architects and Builders last month in Mumbai. These included winning projects from Anand, Surat, Calicut, etc.

And, as we pace up with the digital world, stay with us for daily news and updates on the magazine portal www.ConstructionWorld.in Let us also continue to be your single window to share your perspectives and voice your opinions and recommendations – and this time, its digital!