Encounter With Engineers

Cresting the Wave

February 2011

In the sixth of a series of interviews with prominent engineers, Janaki Krishnamoorthi meets Prabhakar Deshmukh, Chief Manager - Port Planning & Development, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust (JNPT), Navi Mumbai.

The construction of a dam at Shirpur, in Maharashtra’s Dhulia district, was the building block for one man’s career. That project inspired Prabhakar Deshmukh, Chief Manager - Port Planning & Development, JNPT, to become a civil engineer. “I was in my seventh standard at the time and a classmate’s father was deputy engineer in the irrigation department and involved in the construction of this dam,” reminisces the 54-year-old, who has handled a wide range of projects from roads, bridges, underpasses and airstrips to forensic labs, educational institutions, hospitals, residential buildings as well as maintenance of prestigious buildings like Mumbai High Court, Mantralaya, St George Hospital, JJ Hospital and Raj Bhavan. “We used to visit the construction site often. I was fascinated by the sight...the huge embankment, contained water flow, large earthmoving machinery and hundreds of labourers. This experience along with my aptitude for maths and science collectively contributed to my career choice.”

In his career spanning over three decades, largely in the Public Works Department (PWD), Deshmukh has been posted in remote rural areas like Ashti, Patoda, Paranda and Pandharpur. He however values his four-year stint in Nanded the most, where he was responsible for the all-round development of the city. “I gained immense knowledge and experience handling a variety of projects and enjoyed them more as I was working for the masses,” adds Deshmukh. In 2001 he became ex-officio undersecretary (for buildings and later for roads) and, in 2008, deputy secretary. In both these postings, his responsibilities were both technical and administrative.

Still, he never got around to building a dam, which initially enticed him to the profession. “I undertook a survey for the construction of a dam visiting virgin sites and forests which in itself was a great experience, but before construction began I moved from irrigation to PWD,” says Deshmukh. Today, he has ventured into a totally new segment: port development. He joined JNPT in February 2010 and calls it his most challenging task to date as he has to deal with a totally different and difficult environment involving underwater construction and several environmental embargos. “It is a new area for me but I have a good team who are well-versed in the subject and I am learning from them,” says Deshmukh with modesty. At the same time, he asserts that as civil engineers are analytically trained, they can handle any sector with ease. In a conversation with CW, he speaks about the projects he will handle at JNPT and other projects and issues. Excerpts....

JNPT’s future projects

We have three major projects in the pipeline. The first is a standalone container handling facility with a quay length of 330 m towards the north. We plan to extend the container berth. This will also include extension of the guide bund by 160 m, construction of an approach bridge, reclamation of 27 hectare of land for stacking containers and other facilities, and construction of a finger jetty. The project will be taken up on a DBFOT [design, build, finance, operate and transfer) basis for a concession period of 17 years. The estimated cost is Rs 600 crore and capacity addition will be about 800,000 TEU (20-ft equivalent unit) per annum.

The second project is the development of the fourth container terminal. This envisages the development of a 2-km-long container jetty in two phases with a total reclamation of 200 hectare and capacity of 4.8 million TEU per annum in both phases with a total planned investment of Rs 6,700 crore. In Phase 1, the existing 300-m-long liquid cargo berth will be converted into a container berth and will be extended by 700 m, making it a 1,000-m-long berth with backup facilities. In Phase 2, an additional 1,000 m quay length will be constructed, enhancing capacity by another 2.4 million TEU. Bids have been received for both the above projects but there is a stay on opening the bids as one of the intended bidders, who is already running the Gateway Terminal, has gone to court as he was barred from bidding as per policy. He lost the case in the Mumbai High court and the review petition. Now, he has appealed to the Supreme Court.

The third project is the deepening and widening of Mumbai Harbour Channel and JN Port Channel. This will increase the length of the channel from the existing 29 km to 33.54 km and width from the existing minimum 325 m to 370 m for straight reach and maintained 450 m at the bends as it is now. The depth of the channel will be increased from the existing 11 m cd
(chart datum) to 13.9 m cd at the outer harbour channel which will gradually reduce to 12.8 m cd in the JNP channel. This will enable us to accommodate container vessels with a draught up to 14 m of 6,000 TEU capacity using tidal window and up to 12 m draught vessels at all states of tides. At present, vessels up to 9.5 m draught are being handled at all states of tides; vessels with draught exceeding 9.5 m and up to 12.5 m are being handled by using tidal window. The estimated project cost is Rs 1,400 crore and it is at the tendering stage. Work is expected to commence by the end of 2011 and will be completed in four to five months.

Role models

I had the opportunity to work with several good officers. But four of them —MV Patil and VB Borge (both former secretaries, PWD) and AD Patil and RV Girvalkar (both former executive engineers) influenced me tremendously. I consider them my mentors. I was astounded by their principles, dedication to work, style of functioning and humanitarian approach. I learnt a lot from them and am trying to follow their footsteps.

Guiding principles

For me, work is worship and I have always executed my projects keeping public interest in mind. Sometimes you may not be able to go by the rulebook and may have to bend the law. I feel such irregularities, not illegal mind you, can be condoned. I also believe one can be principled and upright even in the public sector. Initially, it is difficult but once people know you are incorruptible, nobody will approach you with an illegitimate proposal.

Quality road construction

Water is the No. 1 enemy in any road construction because when water seeps in, the load-bearing capacity of the road decreases. Hence, we should ensure there is no water seepage through proper drainage. If the soil is marshy, with a tendency to absorb water, appropriate steps should be taken to prevent ingress of water. Lapses like improper compaction, insufficient curing and even lack of uniform quality of material can result in bad roads.

Prabhakar Yashwantrao Deshmukh

  • BE (Civil) from College of Engineering, Pune (1979)
  • Joined Irrigation Circle, Nashik, as Assistant Engineer Grade II (1980-1984 )
  • Moved to Engineering Staff College, Nashik, as Assistant Engineer Grade I (1984-1985)
  • Joined Public Works Department as Assistant Engineer Grade I in Aurangabad region and rose to the level of Superintending Engineer and Ex-Officio Deputy Secretary having worked in several regions including Pune, Nanded and Mumbai and in various divisions including Central Mumbai Division, Presidency Division and Mantralaya (1985-2010)
  • Chief Manager - Port Planning & Development, JNPT (since February 2010)
  • Life Member of Indian Roads Congress
  • Scholarship from Charles Wallace India Trust for study at Bournemouth University, UK, on heritage conservation (Jan 2001-April 2001)
  • Excellent Engineer Award from Government of Maharashtra (2005).

Challenging projects

Project 1: Underpass near railway crossing
Location: Hingoli Naka gate, Nanded, Maharashtra
Period: March to June 1996
Cost: Rs 120 lakh
Background: The manned level crossing at Hingoli Naka gate was to be closed and a vehicular underpass constructed. Railways completed the work in the railway property and the stretch on either side of the crossing was to be handled in just four months. Taking advantage of the time constraint, the bidders quoted 75 per cent above the estimated price as they were aware that the PWD had to sanction the tender immediately to complete the job on time. “I felt we could counter this by splitting the contract into four tenders and executing it through local contractors,” reveals Deshmukh. “Borge, my chief engineer, gave me permission to go ahead and we completed the work at the estimated cost and within the stipulated time.”
Challenges: To complete the job in four months and counter other hurdles, including political interference, as one of the contractors whose tender was rejected tried to use his political connection. “As the local contractors were not that experienced, I had to guide them in designing, procuring machinery and finally executing the work properly. But we managed to pull it off,” recounts Deshmukh. “We were even felicitated by the Nanded Zilla Railway Parishad for completing the project successfully.”

Project 2 : Brain mapping room, Central Forensic Science Laboratory
Location: Kalina, Mumbai
Cost: Rs. 50 lakh (total cost of forensic lab building - Rs 6 crore)
Period: 2005 to 2006
Background: A five-floor building with advanced forensic procedures like narco-analysis, tape authentication, brain mapping and polygraph tests, cyber lab, along with guest houses and firing range was constructed. But the technically innovative brain mapping room, a first in Maharashtra, proved to be very challenging as it had to be totally protected against any kind of electromagnetic induction, static electricity, radiation and shocks. “We used copper plating on floors, walls and windows, earthed to the ground, which arrested electronic and magnetic waves,” explains Deshmukh. “Then it was made shockproof with small shock absorbers installed on the copper plating that was covered with plywood.”
Challenges: It was technologically challenging as such a state-of-the-art brain mapping room was being built for the first time in Maharashtra. “We did considerable research on the latest technology and materials available,” says Deshmukh. “We also consulted experts at the forensic lab in Bengaluru as they already had such a unit. We had to import most of the materials and many were not available at the rates specified in our standard schedule. So I had to get special sanctions. But the project gave me immense satisfaction as it was very innovative.”

Project 3 : Reconstruction of Bhagyanagar road
Location: Nanded city
Period: 1996
Cost: Rs 2 crore
Background: Bhagyanagar Road was a 2-km-long trunk road with four lanes. During every monsoon, large potholes surfaced on this road that often led to the road being closed for about four months. Repairs done until then proved to be of little use as the road was on black cotton (marshy) soil that absorbs water heavily, decreasing the load-bearing capacity of the road. It is easily compressible when wet and possesses a tendency to heave during wet conditions. “After analysing the situation, my chief engineer, Borge, took the bold decision to use a non-conventional method to build the road,” recalls Deshmukh. “While he provided me the technical details, the difficult part of the execution rested on me.” The road was totally dug up, then 1 ft layer of sand was scrupulously laid that acted as a natural filter for water and then all the other regular treatments were carried out. In addition, perforated pipes to drain out any further seepage of water were also installed.
Challenges: The real challenge was to take a bold decision and implement it meticulously without any compromise despite the fact that it increased the cost by about half a crore, which later invited criticism. “But the road has remained maintenance free for the past 14 years and is in better condition than all the other roads built much later in Nanded,” says Deshmukh with pride. “Even today, the people of Nanded know me as the man who built the Bhagyanagar road.”