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Can technology eradicate corruption in the building industry?


bildingAround us, across the globe, we see two types of corruption, in small or large measure. Type 1 is corruption at the corporate-political collusion level involving crores of rupees and Type 2 is at the common man’s level, when a cop on the street asks for a hundred rupee note to let you go for an offense. In India we see a wide presence of both types of corruption. In the west, as a visitor, you are not likely to see too much of Type 2 corruption. Why? Because they have devised very good ‘systems and processes’ for most public domain services like law and order, security, healthcare and education. It is a different matter that whilst devising such efficient systems and processes, it is quite possible that there might have been large-scale political-corporate collusion. Type 1 corruption is thus seen in most parts of the world.In Singapore and in several developed countries, you don’t see too many cops on the road. You don’t see people at ‘toll collection’ points. If you break a traffic light, automatic cameras will capture your license plate number along with a picture of the driver and automatically you will get a ticket at home. Toll is collected automatically through smart card sensors as you move from zone to zone. In essence, it is difficult to beat the system and there is no room for corruption at the common man level. This is true about most public domain services in developed countries.

Let us look at India. Fifteen years back, the only way to buy a long distance train ticket for your vacations in India was to stand in a long queue at railway stations. If you did not have a ‘confirmed reservation’ there would be many touts, who for a small sum, would get you a confirmation. One did not have a choice between the queue and the tout. Today, we have a choice. We have ‘online booking’. One can, at the comfort of home, book tickets online, and for urgent bookings even attempt the ‘tatkal’ option. The point is that today we have a choice; yesterday we did not. Because of this choice, many of us, today can avoid the services of a tout. Many still need touts, but then it is a beginning.

Twenty years back one had to bribe to get a telephone line and wait for months. Today one doesn’t have to bribe and a connection is secured within minutes.

At the core of all these examples is technology. Any industry which has seen infusion of domain technology and information technology has, over a period of time, managed to eradicate or reduce Type 2 corruption levels. Not only that, technology infusion has also ensured that affordability of such products and services increases over time. More and more people can afford a phone today; more and more people can afford personalized vehicles today.
All of these are examples of ‘pre-engineered’ mass solutions.

The building industry is probably one of the last few industries which have seen very little infusion of domain technology and virtually no infusion of information technology. Structures in 2012 are built pretty much the same way they were built in 1962. Ask your father.

So, obviously, over a period of time, despite India’s progress, houses become more and more unaffordable. Construction has become more and more unaffordable. So it is no surprise that the housing shortage of 26 million units in India increases every year. As the ‘ticket size of deals’ increase, thanks to India’s arrival at the global stage, corruption has become endemic to the system in an industry where adherence to regulations is seen as an exception. As incompetent and unqualified professionals fill the industry, such practices can be seen at all levels; encouraging both Type 1 and Type 2 types of corruption.

If construction techniques, systems and processes do not see any infusion of modern technology, there is very little hope of the scenario improving.

The way forward for the building industry is to look at pre-engineered solutions. Several governments have ‘officially’ supported initiatives like pre-cast components, but a lack of strong public-private initiatives have ensured that no major breakthrough is seen. Few organisations like Projectwell and KieranTimberlake have been trying to work with regulators and industry to bring in concepts like pre-engineered home solutions, pre-engineered fit-out solutions in India. A professional German shipping company gets themselves entangled in a messy contract when their own Indian team took advantage of the lack of standardized building solutions, for no fault of the contractor of the parent company. What do you call such situations? Corruption or corporate greed or plain and simple mess because of a lack of clearly spelt out pre-defined set of deliverables?
When a mobile phone is purchased today, you get everything clearly spelled out. There is no doubt. You get what you pay for. In the building industry, are you presented with that choice and clarity? No. There are several grey areas in every deal, in every contract, and these are the grey areas which are taken advantage of. The way forward would be to design a process, backed by a strong ERP (enterprises resources planning), which would integrate all the variables of the construction process and make the delivery process efficient by bringing in accountability at every level. Few companies in the west have attempted this and even allow a layman to select the house of his/her choice over the internet and even design it, with auto updating of prices. A click of a button will trigger the delivery process of the house and one can keep tracking the ‘manufacturing’ progress over the internet and sms. They have eliminated ‘doubt’; you get what you see. A house is no more ‘constructed’; it is ‘manufactured’ based on a set of pre-defined engineering details, pretty much like any other industry. It is a bit early to expect Indians to buy houses or shops over the internet yet, but a beginning is being made. Pre-engineered solutions are the way ahead and the beacon of hope to eradicate corruption and inefficiencies in the building industry.
It is not only the building industry which can gain from the aggressive infusion of technology, but even other vital sectors like healthcare and education has much to gain from it. With India labeled as the IT backyard of the world, it is high time we took advantage of our prowess and used it for our own good as well.

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