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Friday, December 23, 2022

Delays in government contracting: A tale of two metros

by Anirudh Burman and Pavithra Manivannan.

A state entity undertaking a procurement exercise must meet prescribed timelines throughout its procurement pipeline. Delays in one or more milestones adversely affect all parties involved: the procuring entity (increase in expenditure beyond the budget and disputes), the contracted vendors (uncertainty and delays in payment) and the public (delays in utilising public goods and services). At the outset, we recognise that the indicator of a successful procurement exercise are multi-fold: achieving required quality, adhering to timeline and limiting spending gap. Our approach employs the lack of delays as the indicator of a successful procurement exercise.

In a recent article, we examined the extent to which DMRC's (the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) competence in timely project execution was borne out by data. We found that (a) DMRC is able to meet the Government of India's and its own stipulations in two stages of its procurement process, that is, contract award and vendor payments; and (b) In spite of this exemplary performance, DMRC has faced delays in overall project implementation that have gradually increased over time. This article seeks to understand the underlying factors that potentially contributed to DMRC's prompt performance in its procurement process.

It is not possible to understand DMRC's success in isolation. Instead, we analyse it relative to its predecessor, the Calcutta metro-rail system (Calcutta metro). The Calcutta metro was India's first metro-rail system to be implemented. It was plagued by delays and cost overruns. Such a comparative analysis of a successful public project to one that fared worse in execution is revealing. First, it shows the learning curve of the state in building capacity to execute public projects. Second, it helps to understand what works and what does not, when a state entity conducts a procurement exercise. The analysis can serve to provide valuable feedback in procurement reform policies.

Delays in execution of metro-rail systems

Formerly, the Ministry of Railways was responsible for the construction of mass rail services, including metro-rail systems in metropolitan cities. The Ministry undertook the construction of the Calcutta metro in 1971. In 1986, the Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961 was amended to shift the responsibility of the urban transport system to the Ministry of Urban Development (now the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs). In contrast to the Calcutta metro, the construction of the Delhi metro-rail system (Delhi metro) was undertaken by the Ministry of Urban Development as the nodal union ministry. The role of Railways was limited to providing technical assistance.

We study the annual reports of the Delhi metro and the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee Reports (1981; 1989; 1992) on the Calcutta metro, to estimate overall delays in both these projects. We source this data from the website of DMRC and the Parliament of India, respectively. Our data consists of six time periods during which there was significant procurement of works. The data includes the date of completion and submission of the detailed project report (DPR), the date on which the project received Union Cabinet approval, the date of commencement of works, the scheduled date of completion of the project, and the actual date of completion of the project, in part and full. These are presented in Table 1 below, as a timeline of events for the first line of the Calcutta metro and the first phase of the Delhi metro.

Table 1: Timeline of events
Event Calcutta Metro Line-1 Delhi Metro Phase-1
Completion of Detailed Project Report (DPR) 1971 1995
Project sanction 1972 1996
Project commencement 1978 1997
Scheduled completion 1978 2005
Partial commission (one section) 1984 2002
Project completion (fully operational) 1995 2006

We find that the gap between estimated and actual date of completion is a little more than a year for the Delhi metro. This gap was close to two decades for the Calcutta metro. Further, the lag between the date of sanction of the project to the date of commencement of works for the project is wider for the Calcutta metro (4 years) than for the Delhi metro (about a year).

This suggests that, from 1971 to 1995, there appears to be much improvement in the way procurement was undertaken for Indian metro-rail systems. We posit that the Delhi metro's success was shaped by the challenges faced and the experiences gained in implementing the Calcutta metro. Our analysis attributes learnings from the Calcutta metro to the following structure and list of processes adopted by DMRC: its institutional design, its financing and revenue models, global transfer of technical know-how, and expertise of its early leadership. In the subsequent sections we analyse how each of these features enabled the Delhi metro to avoid inordinate delays.

The institutional design of the procuring entity

What motivated the institutional design of DMRC? To answer this we look at various Parliamentary Committee reports, CAG reports and literature on the subject. Our review suggests that there were three main institutional constraints faced by the Ministry of Railways in implementing the Calcutta metro.

  1. The lack of coordination with the West Bengal State Government and the local agencies in Kolkata. There were delays in land acquisition, problems in utility diversions such as transport, water and sewage, and detection of uncharted utilities after commencement of works. These instances had a direct impact on the contracting process, such as frequent interruptions of works, revisions to scope of work, and change in construction methodology (Public Accounts Committee, 1981).
  2. Frequent changes and vacancies within the Ministry of several important personnel such as the General Manager and Chief Engineer. This was due to the administrative process of the Ministry. The Railways had to follow the conditions laid down by the Appointment Committee of the Cabinet with respect to retirement, superannuation and promotion (Public Accounts Committee, 1981). This resulted in loss of experience and expertise within the procuring entity.
  3. Inadequacy of financial powers delegated to the General Manager. From the year 1974 to 1982 the General Manager had the power to sanction tenders up to Rs. 1 crore only. This was increased to Rs. 2 crores in 1983 and Rs. 5 crores in 1985. This limited power of the General Manager meant, approvals for sanctions of higher value tenders had to be received from the Railway Board. This procedure was time consuming and caused delays in finalisation of contracts by up to 3 years (Public Accounts Committee, 1989).

We speculate that the above constraints prompted the authorities undertaking the Delhi metro project to adopt a different approach. The Calcutta experience provided two guides for the organisational structure of DMRC. One, to build institutional capabilities for executing a metro-rail system outside the Ministry of Railways. Second, to have a separate corporate entity with independent decision making authority. Thus, DMRC was set up with two distinguishing features which worked in its favour: It was formed as a limited liability company under the Companies Act, 1956 and the ownership of the entity vested equally in the Union and the State Government. The board of directors of DMRC constituted representatives from the Union Ministry of Urban Development, Department of Transport of GNCTD and the Delhi Development Authority. Such an institutional arrangement, by aligning incentives for all the stakeholders, enabled better coordination with the local government and ensured that the management had the backing of both the State and the Union Government. Further, functional directors appointed for distinct functions such as, project and planning, works, electrical, finance, business development and the like, had sufficient powers delegated to them under the Schedule of Powers (CAG, 2008). This facilitated quick decisions in expenditure approvals, qualification of bidders, finalisation and acceptance of contracts. Finally, the long tenure of key personnel such as the Managing Director, enabled the organisation to retain domain experience and expertise.

Financing and revenue models

For prompt execution and sustenance of any infrastructure project, timely flow of funds is essential. Metro-rail systems are capital-intensive projects. The Calcutta metro was fully funded by the Ministry of Railways. One of the main reported reasons for delay in the project was lack of funds and improper utilisation of allocated funds. Up until 1980, the Railways had not fully utilised the funds allocated for the project. Further, for subsequent years, sufficient funds were not made available for the construction. This resulted in shortage of raw materials, such as steel and signaling equipment, and delayed payments to vendors (Standing Committee on Railways, 1993; Public Accounts Committee, 1981). For the DMRC project, the Calcutta experience prompted the authorities to explore other avenues for funding such as, equity, external agency loans, subordinate loans from centre and state, property development revenue and central government grants. Most significant was the official development assistance (ODA) loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Nearly 54-55 per cent of the first three phases of the DMRC projects was funded by JICA as a low-interest and long-term concessional loan. The funding pattern for each phase of the project sourced from the DMRC website is as set out in Table 2. Smooth flow of funds into DMRC enabled timely payment to vendors and ensured that the project was not delayed due to uncertainty in financing.

Table 2: Funding pattern for DMRC projects
Phase I Phase II Phase III
JICA loan 60% 54.47% 48.57%
Equity from GoI 14% 16.39% 10.04%
Equity from GNCTD 14% 16.39% 10.04%
Loans from Union/States 5% 6.56% 13.39%
Grants from States - 0.59% 10.62%
Property Development 7% 5.59% 7.34%

Another lesson came from the fact that the Calcutta Metro was not financially viable (Singh, 2002). The traffic earnings were inadequate to cover the operating expenses of the metro-rail system. This not only burdened the exchequer in the form of subsidies but also affected the public as the fare per trip that was charged had to be increased to sustain operations (Public Accounts Committee, 1989). Decrease in cash flow meant stalling of procurement of raw materials, and delays in payments to vendors.

The financial crunch faced by Calcutta Metro encouraged DMRC to generate revenue through non-conventional sources. DMRC adopted the examples of well-performing international metro-rail systems and sought to increase its non-farebox revenue. Table 3 below shows the revenue model of DMRC for 10 years (FY2011-FY2020) obtained from its annual reports. Revenue from traffic operations is categorised as fare-box revenue and revenue from real estate, consultancy and external projects are categorised as non fare-box revenue.

Table 3: DMRC Revenue Model (as percentage of total revenue)
Description Fare revenue Non fare revenue
FY20 65.49 34.51
FY19 62.92 37.08
FY18 55.22 44.78
FY17 45.69 54.31
FY16 53.35 46.65
FY15 60.34 39.66
FY14 55.74 44.26
FY13 62.93 37.07
FY12 65.74 34.26
FY11 65.05 34.95

On an average 58.49% of DMRC's revenue is from traffic operations (fare-box revenue) and 41.51% of the revenue is through other sources (non-fare box revenue). This is in line with international practice. For instance, the non-farebox revenue of some of the better performing metros in the world (in terms of ridership and network length), such as London, Singapore and Hong Kong, ranges from 25-60% of its total revenue. DMRC's capacity to source funds and remain financially viable has helped it to make timely payments to its contractors, repay its debts, and expand its network line.

Human capacity and technical know-how

Building human competence within the government is paramount to do procurement well. This includes both functional as well as technical competence. In India, the technical know-how to build metro-rail systems was lacking. The Calcutta metro was the first ever underground railway project undertaken in India. Despite this, global tenders were not invited for construction of the work. Neither the construction firms in the country nor the Railway Administration possessed the experience to construct underground structures for a rapid transit system. The lack of expertise led to frequent abandonment of works and changes in scope of work, resulting in huge financial implications in addition to time overruns (Public Accounts Committee 1989 and 1992). Thus, when the idea of a metro-rail system in Delhi was born, the need to rope in personnel with prior expertise and experience, such as, B.I. Singal and E. Sreedharan, was recognised.

Mr. B.I. Singal was the former Director General of the Institute of Urban Transport and the then Managing Director of RITES (Rail India Technical and Economic Service). Mr. Singal came in with 11 years of experience in the planning and building of some of the finest metro-rail systems in the world, such as the Hong Kong MTR (known for completing the project within time and budget) and Taipei metro-rail network. RITES prepared the feasibility study on building a metro-rail system for Delhi. Mr. Singal made sure that his RITES team had a few professionals who had previous experience of working with the Calcutta metro. Mr. E. Sreedharan, the first Managing Director of DMRC, had served as the Chairman and Managing Director of Konkan Railways. He brought in his domain experience of working with the Railways as well as the management experience of heading an autonomous entity. Studies document some effective practices adopted by Singal and Sreedharan which we speculate had an impact on the organisation's procurement practices. They insisted on independence in decision making, speed, and global exchange of knowledge and expertise (Ashokan, 2015; CPI, 2017). This resulted in creation of DMRC as a separate legal entity and in transfer of Japanese technology and know-how in building metro-rail systems.

After the failed attempt at indigenisation by the Calcutta metro, the authorities felt the need to tap in to global expertise for the Delhi metro project. In addition to funding from JICA, Japanese Consultants were also brought on board. This ensured transfer of foreign technological knowledge, skills and expertise to DMRC. DMRC engineers developed technical skills such as tunneling technologies, and functional skills such as management ethos, and value for time from their Japanese counterparts (Onishi, 2016). This enabled DMRC to build in-house capacity, which now helps other metro-rail networks in the country.


Our work shows how the Indian state attempts to achieve better outcomes by identifying lessons from its past shortcomings. The challenges faced by the Calcutta metro shaped the Delhi metro's institutional design, financial structure, and human resource competence. Our article highlights the importance of these three factors in enabling desirable procurement outcomes.

A key insight from our analysis is that these factors do not work in isolation. Autonomy in decision making, efficient and experienced personnel, adequate financing, and right institutional choice are all inter-operable and go hand in hand. If a procuring entity seeks to realise better outcomes, procurement reforms must not merely pick the lowest hanging fruit of these factors. Instead, a sector-specific approach of studying the past experiences must be employed to act as feedback into future projects. Our research provides a framework to assess such past successes and failures, and demonstrates the potential of deploying such research.


Public Accounts Committee, Fifty-fifth Report, 1981, Hundred and Forty-second Report, 1989 and Ninth Report, 1991.

Standing Committee on Railways, Second Report, 1993 and Thirty-fourth Report, 2007.

Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Report No. Performance Audit 17, 2008.

Pavithra Manivannan, Lessons from the Delhi Metro, Business Standard, July 2021.

Anirudh Burman and Pavithra Manivannan, Timeliness in government contracting: Evidence from the country's largest metro-rail network, The Leap Blog, August 2022.

Yumiko Onishi, Breaking Ground: A Narrative on the making of Delhi Metro, JICA, 2016.

Centre for Public Impact, The Construction of the Delhi Metro, November 2017.

Saurabh Singhal, Non Farebox Revenue for Metro - A Global Perspective, Business World, May 2022.

The International Association of Public Transport (UITP), World Metro Figures, 2018.

M.S. Ashokan, Karmayogi - A biography of E. Sreedharan, Penguin, 2015.

Anirudh Burman is an Associate Research Director and Fellow at Carnegie India. Pavithra Manivannan is a Senior Research Associate at XKDR Forum and Chennai Mathematical Institute.

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