Can India bite into the $ 680-billion EPC market?

The Government has recognised that the economy is suffering and needs a strong booster dose – placebos just won’t work. Today, all the ministers are brainstorming over revitalising the economy. For our part, CONSTRUCTION WORLD, along with Foundation of Infrastructure Research Studies Training (FIRST), took up the challenge and presented Union Minister of Commerce & Industry Suresh Prabhu with solutions to inject adrenaline into the economy. The overall intent is evident: bring in foreign exchange, enhance employment, contribute taxes and plan for long-term positive development for the country.

One of our solutions is to strategise to attract the ‘engineering research and design’ industry to India. This $ 680-billion industry is projected to move $ 170 billion – 25 per cent of total revenues – to Asia. Companies like Bechtel, AmecFoster & Wheeler, Black & Veatch and others are based in India, employing thousands of engineers creating engineering designs for complex multibillion infrastructure projects around the globe. This brings in foreign exchange, tax payments and employment. In fact, India has a talent pool of nearly 500,000 engineers graduating every year; such companies can help boost their skill sets and hone them as worthy assets for the country’s future technical talent pool. The stakes are high-$ 170 billion as mentioned above – and India should stake a claim. Back home, we have such skill sets in public-sector companies like Engineers India, RITES, IRCON, MECON, Engineering Projects, WAPCOS, and so on. Going forward, our EPC companies can create SPVs with such projects to forge future alliances as the home infrastructure market opens up to these global giants from the design and engineering space.

Our recent exercise in analysing India’s Fastest Growing Construction Companies has thrown up new names into the orbit that have grown geometrically over the past three years. These have shot to challenge the erstwhile fastest growing companies, indicating that new money has found its way to supporting companies that do not carry ‘legacy baggage’. Our jury comprising India’s top three rating companies debated the merits of excluding companies on grounds of questionable governance practices; therefore, some companies had to miss their spot of glory. This issue, bearing an element of surprise, we also present the nominees of this exercise. In our view, to be nominated is an important milestone in itself.

Early this year, CONSTRUCTION WORLD launched a new logo that intended to depict the increase in mechanisation, scale of infrastructure projects, project management expertise and adoption of technology. After scouring over the responses and suggestions received, we have conceded that our old logo stands tall with its leadership image well-entrenched in the minds of our readers and followers! Therefore, we have decided to bring it back amid the festivities of the month. On behalf of the entire team, I wish you all Happy Diwali and a prosperous new year!

When will the good times roll in?

India is on a path of deep-rooted reform. Many initiatives have been triggered that will see fruition this year: Implementation of RERA (with a deadline of May 17), appointment of a Real-Estate Regulator, credit ratings of municipal corporations, issuance of municipal bonds by cities, introduction of GST, and much more. While these shifts do cause disruption in the regular flow of commerce and require systemic adjustment, India can afford this exercise as growth numbers are robust enough to absorb the shocks of change.

Now, however, all eyes are on public spending, which can bring the mojo back. An amount of Rs 3.96 lakh crore (against Rs 3.48 lakh crore the previous year) has been budgeted for infrastructure with Rs 2.41 lakh crore for transport alone. A separate amount has been provided for metro projects to the tune of Rs 18,000 crore and, similarly, among other schemes like Swachh Bharat, Bharatnet, Deen Dayal Jyoti Yojana, etc.

The government´s record last year gives us a reason to believe that spending has gathered momentum as the chains of bureaucracy are being delinked through transparency and accountability. However, it is important that the urgency shown in preponing the dates for the Budget should crystallise into an early disbursal of funds for the projects.

A favourable poll result for the ruling party will accelerate government programmes. Renewable power prices, including solar and wind, seem to have ushered in hope for improvement in production costs for India´s manufacturing sector. Labour costs have risen geometrically for all industries. Also, with rural electrification being implemented on a war footing and Bharatnet expected to make high-speed broadband on a fibre-optic network available by 2017-18 in more than 1.5 lakh gram panchayats, the aspirations of the population will explode countrywide. Lag in power availability stunted our progress; but states are resurrecting their power finances with UDAY.

Further, housing, which was the topic of our cover story last issue, is likely to gallop as it has now been given ´infrastructure´ status and the Central Government is providing interest subvention for ´affordable housing´. ´With an additional interest subvention of 3-odd per cent offered by states, housing demand can skyrocket,´ stated the Union Minister of Urban Development and Housing, while launching the new logo of CW at a conference organised by PHD Chamber in Delhi recently. What´s more, the smart cities mission is quietly making progress with 30 of the 60 identified cities having organised SPVs and appointed CEOs. Tenders are being issued and over 90 projects are underway. To discuss smart solutions that can be executed in the Indian context across cities, Smart Cities Council India is organising the 4th SM@RT CITIES SUMMIT at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, from March 15-17. For details, visit www.SmartCitiesSummit.in.

Indeed, the vote is for development all the way. And if all political parties realise this, we are likely to see development as a common agenda with each vying to outdo each other. Then, the good times would have truly begun.

White knight wanted after black money battle

There are very few events etched in the memories of an entire generation. For the Americans, it was the 9/11 attack and the Lehman brothers collapse. For Indians, it was the Kargil skirmish, the 26/11 terror attack and, now, demonetisation.
This bold and moral move by the PM has had its share of execution challenges, the consequences of which are grave. At just about the time when the green shoots, as reported in this column, began to stabilise, the land beneath them was scorched. Real estate, consumer goods, jewellery and the informal business segment of the country have been victims of a frontal attack. Businesses have reported a loss of 30-40 per cent in revenues. The momentum of money has ground to a halt. Banks have run out of money to dispense. Fortunately, the government is course-correcting rapidly. It is ready to launch an extension of the ´Voluntary Disclosure Income Scheme´, where a tax of 50 per cent would give unaccounted money a holy dip with another 25 per cent of the money being subject to a zero interest bearing bond for four years, thus allowing the offender to circulate 25 per cent of his declaration in an official form. This would effectively cost the declarer 57 per cent. The challenge is that there are several ´start-up gangs´ that have reinvented the art of conversion at a lower cost of 25 per cent. So although the money remains tainted, legal tender is received in place of the obsolete notes. This would dampen the response to such conversion.

Unless we are able to increase the number of tax-paying individuals from the current 30 million to at least 45 million, the effectiveness of the demonetisation exercise may remain in question. The country, however, has improved its image by portraying a robust financial system that has been able to withstand such staggering logistics.

That said, real estate has suffered a big blow. According to a report by PropEquity, housing prices in 42 major cities across India could drop by up to 30 per cent over six to twelve months, wiping out over Rs 8 lakh crore worth of market value of residential properties sold and unsold by developers since 2008. The bigger casualty is employment, which is likely to suffer a setback.

This may be one of the stiffest challenges that the Modi Government will face. Our CW issue with Minister for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship Rajiv Pratap Rudy has already highlighted the fact that improvement in skills for 35 million workers was a prerequisite for desired growth. However, demonetisation has severely hit the informal sector, which will need to undertake some costs to come into the formal economy. Targeting benefits to reach the right segments would require precision and agility on the part of the government.

On the brighter side, interest rates are set to come down. Income tax rates, too, will ease up
The cycle of low rents and high interest is likely to turn with interest rates softening up and rents hardening. Public spending will continue to drive economic sentiment. Private-sector spending will defer all plans but overseas investments with a stronger dollar may rise if the Fed rates remain easy. But there is a fear that the Federal Reserve may increase the rates and just as $3.18 billion fled the country in November alone (the steepest selling in equity and bonds by foreign institutions in the past three years), such a trigger may depress our outlook.
As the government brings in more money to be accounted for in a formalised manner by curbing black money, it needs to set benchmarks for the use of this money, especially the money managed and run by it. Only 15 of the 74 loss-making PSUs have been asked to shut shop so far. With more and more digital mechanisms in place in the government, it needs to relook at its hiring policies and shed some weight by moving experienced bureaucrats into management positions of SPVs, which are JVs under the PPP mode.

The fight against black money will also need to provide a balm for those wounded as part of collateral damage, to keep up the spirit of the population that is supporting this moral battle.
We need a ´white´ knight!

Let´s Get Parliamentary

When, a couple of years ago, CW raised the question of whether India could be considered a construction equipment hub, many scoffed at the idea as our delivery on manufacturing was not considered competitive. Over the years, the logic morphed from addressing the needs of neighbouring countries to developing models specific to the needs of Indian terrain and then exporting such models to other countries requiring them. At this year´s EXCON, which just concluded in Bengaluru, the fact that India has established itself as a sourcing hub was very clear. This is an essential pillar of the ´Make in India´ campaign within the construction segment. With a current size of $2.8 billion, the Indian construction equipment industry is expected to grow to $5 billion by 2019-20. Even the after-sales spares market is about $800 million.

The roads sector has clearly been prime among the islands of solace, closely followed by contract mining, irrigation and power. Minister for Roads Nitin Gadkari has proven to be a dependable ally for the construction sector owing to his dogged determination in resolving issues afflicting progress.

He, along with his team, has initiated several measures to counter reticence, paving the way for resurgence in orders for the sector. However, as Robert Frost said, ¨The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.¨ The finances are showing no indication of improvement.

Aggregate sales, operating profit and net profit of over 300 companies from core sectors fell in the September 2015 quarter, making it the third consecutive quarter of a dismal performance. Half the operating profit was spent on servicing debt indicating pressured balance sheets. The performance of core sectors (including capital goods, cement, construction, metals, mining, and power) is indicating that the decline has not been arrested conclusively and a turnaround in the economy may take longer than expected. The performance of core sector companies in the September quarter has seen net sales fall year-on-year by 5.5 per cent while net profit has dropped by 7.1 per cent. Operating profit skidded 12.6 per cent, which was steeper than the drop in sales, reflecting pressure on margins. If a comprehensive view of the entire sample of over 1,800 companies across sectors excluding banking, finance, oil and gas is taken, we find a modest improvement in net sales by 1.5 per cent and net profit by 1.6 per cent while operating profit slipped by 2.3 per cent. Companies are weighed down under a $640-billion debt burden, which is more than 30 per cent of India´s GDP. The strain lies in the stressed debt of over $50 billion in the banks and a rise in bond defaults. Gammon India is the sixth company where bankers have decided to take majority control by converting debt into equity. Previously, lenders to Electrosteel Steels Ltd, Lanco Teesta Hydro Power Pvt Ltd, VISA Steel Ltd, Jyoti Structures Ltd and Monnet Ispat and Energy Ltd have invoked conversion of debt into equity giving them majority control. Gammon´s T&D and EPC businesses have already been scheduled to change hands by incorporating them into separate SPVs.

Government spending will need to continue to accelerate the momentum in the economy. The passing of GST would also greatly help. Politically, an atmosphere of cooperation is needed; this appears to be emerging as the ruling party seems to have decided to work with the opposition than have a standoff. Enough un-parliamentary communication across the country – Parliament at work will augur well for closing the year on a positive note.