10 on 10 with Alok Bhowmick, President, Indian Association of Structural Engineers

Mr. Alok Bhowmick has 35 years of rich and relevant experience in the field of civil and structural engineering and has worked on the techno-economic feasibility studies, design and construction supervision of river bridges, flyovers, metro viaduct & stations, underpasses, aqueducts, industrial structures and other structural engineering works. He has to his credit a number of major design projects in prestressed concrete, reinforced concrete and structural steel in India and overseas. Some of his significant projects include the viaducts, bridges, stations and underground constructions of the metros in Delhi & Bangalore, several flyovers and interchanges in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Amritsar, at important road crossings. He has been involved in several projects for the Commonwealth Games 2010. Mr. Bhowmick has written and published nearly 50 technical papers. His special areas of interest also include motivating the next generation to adopt civil engineering as their profession and vocation in life.

SURFACES REPORTER (SR) spoke with Mr. Bhowmick on various aspects including Skill Development and more...

1. You have been a part of many notable projects in India and abroad. Tell us about your journey so far.

My professional journey began in 1981 after completing my graduation in Civil Engineering from Delhi College of Engineering. Before venturing to become an entrepreneur, I had worked with a few consulting firms in India and overseas for 17 years. During this period, I steadily improved upon my skill, my passion and my commitment to the profession of structural engineering. I worked hard and stayed determined in my goal with the result that my work was duly recognized, wherever I worked. However, I had always dreamed of becoming an entrepreneur and hoped to form an organization of my own, which would create job opportunities for the country’s youngsters. During 1988-1991, I did my M Tech in Structural Engineering from IIT Delhi. I was a part-time student, working full-time in a private consultancy firm. I had a hard time in maintaining a balance between my studies and my professional commitments. In the year 1998, I along with my wife (who is also a structural engineer), formed a modest firm by the name “Bridge & Structural Engineering Consultants.” My reputation in the industry helped me to get some prestigious design projects in the beginning of my entrepreneurial venture. This helped me to start in a different trajectory. Over the years, the company has grown manifold in size and has got recognition as one of the top consulting companies in the field of bridge engineering in India. The organization has received several awards and accolades. In my personal capacity also I have received several recognitions and awards.

2. Lack of structural safety is a huge concern. How can safety awareness be raised? How can following the NBC codes be made more stringent?

There are several ways of raising awareness about safety amongst professionals. If I have to cite one way, I will say “Regulate the Profession of Civil Engineering.” This one single step (though a giant one) will address this issue to a great extent.

At present our profession is not regulated, unlike the profession of doctors, lawyers chartered accountants. With a lack of regulation, there are problems of incompetence, non-compliance of codes and standards and there is almost no accountability amongst the professionals. There is no fear of losing the license to practice.

3. It is a common scenario in our country that designs just need to get vetted by engineers from premier institutes and they are approved. What’s your view on this?

Yes, unfortunately, this is routinely done by the authorities across different levels of governance. Academic institutions are used by them as a shield, in order to protect themselves from any legal hassles, in case of any lapses in design by the consultants, causing distress/failure of the structures. In the majority of the cases, the academic institutions neither possess the requisite experience nor the domain knowledge to proof check the structures they are vetting. Such academic institutions are neither doing justice to the project which they are vetting nor they are doing justice to the students of the institutions since prime teaching time is devoted by them in consultancy services.

4. Lack of skilled workforce is often cited as an excuse to make compromises at design level checking. If yes, what can be the possible remedies?

This is an issue that needs serious attention from all the stakeholders from academic institutions to industry to the authorities responsible for governance. The construction industry must come forward and invest time and energy in improving the skills of youngsters. Engineers are not born with the required skill. They have to acquire skills in the industry. The industry has to make an effort to train the young breed of engineers and make them industry-worthy.

The engineers need to realize that skill development is a continuous process throughout their careers. They need to continuously upgrade their skills in order to remain relevant and effective in the profession.

Indian Association of Structural Engineers is working towards the skill development of structural engineers very aggressively. Refresher courses, Seminars, Conferences, Brain Storming Sessions, Monthly technical lectures, technical discussions on codes and standards are organized on a regular basis to sharpen the skills of structural engineers. The Association has become the source of expertise and information concerning all issues that involve structural engineering and public safety within the built environment.

5. What can be done by associations like yours to ensure that designs are vetted only by qualified people?

Indian Association of Structural Engineers (IAStructE) has taken proactive steps in this regard and raised this issue in several forums with clients in the past. The association has also prepared guidelines for proof checking of buildings and bridges. These documents are freely downloadable from the website. The proof consultant shall be a professional engineer who is actively engaged in the practice and shall have the requisite experience in the domain.

6. What changes would you like to see in the segment 5 years down the line?

In the next 5 years, I would like to see the “Professional Engineers Bill” to be operational and passed through an act of parliament to regulate the profession of Civil Engineering / Structural Engineering. It is important for the country to ensure that engineers and technologists have high levels of competence and high levels of professional integrity. The engineering degree does not necessarily equip engineers and technologists with the requisite competence and integrity. Such competence can be acquired after graduation through a process of intensive training and sustained through a process of continuing education and up-gradation of skills.

A mechanism needs to be set up to ensure that every engineer and technologist whose decisions impact the health and safety of the society, goes through this process and is tested for having acquired the requisite skills and accorded a status of Professional Engineer (PE).

Any time an engineer or a technologist does not measure up to the high level of technical competence, professional honesty, and integrity, this status of Professional Engineer (PE) is withdrawn. Such a mechanism of regulation of the profession is possible only with the help of an Act of Parliament.

In the next 5 years, I would also like to see more and more Academia-Industry Interaction. Nurturing young minds in the right way, early in the career is important. I would like to see senior engineers from the industry to pledge a little bit more of their precious time to academic institutions for delivering talks and sharing their knowledge and experience. The need to develop strong fundamentals in young students is a must. Academia will have to take note of this and act accordingly (in terms of modifying conduct or structure of courses, or even curriculum).

7. What role is Indian Association of Structural Engineers playing in creating a safer India?

For ensuring safety, we need an organized workforce and competent structural engineers who are knowledgeable, well-versed with the latest codes and standards and at ease with the state of the art know-how and digital technology. The association is already working in this direction and is engaged in organizing the following on a regular basis:

  • CPD Courses for Professionals

  • Refresher Courses for young engineers

  • Student’s orientation program v Seminars/Workshops

  • Technical Lectures & Technical Discussions

The association also publishes a quarterly journal of structural engineers, titled “Structural Engineering Digest.”

8. What are the immediate plans of the association for ensuring stronger & safer structures within the country?

We are looking forward to spreading our activities in many parts of the country, for which we need to increase our membership manifold. At present, due to restricted members, we are organizing these activities only in restricted few cities where we have sizable membership (like New Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, etc.). However, we plan to spread our activities in other cities and smaller towns as well in the future.

9. Your message to architects/ designers/ structural engineers.

The responsibilities of engineers and architects often overlap. Both professions are integral to the design and construction of building structures and they must respect each other.

Architects, structural engineers and executing agencies are part of the same team with shared responsibilities and if we have to ensure the safety of a building, they have to work in unison, like members of a symphony orchestra team.

10. Your opinion about Surfaces Reporter magazine.

I understand that this is the only magazine in India, which is focused on Materials for Architecture & Interiors and has unique content that captures the attention of architects, designers, engineers, artists alike. This is great and I wish this magazine a great success.

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