Mumbai’s efforts to address its traffic woes with an ambitious coastal road project and underground Metro line is crucially reliant on Chinese equipment. Of the total 18 Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) being used to dig underground tunnels in the city for major infrastructure projects, eight have been manufactured by Chinese-owned companies while 10 are by Western companies but manufactured in China.
Officials and project consultants say that despite the political calls to boycott Chinese-manufactured goods due to the current tension at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, it would be impossible to review the Made in China heavy machinery that is being used in all Mumbai’s big ticket infrastructure projects, without causing significant time delay and cost escalation if not paralysing these projects altogether.
The biggest of these TBMs, manufactured by the China Railway Construction Heavy Industry Co, arrived in Mumbai on April 26 this year. The TBM, said to be the largest tunnel boring machine deployed in India, will be used for tunnelling a 3.45-km twin undersea tunnel from Girgaum Chowpatty to Malabar Hill for Mumbai’s 29.2 km Coastal Road project. The machine was brought in by coastal road contractor L&T which has bagged the contract for construction of the road, which originates at Princess Street on Marine Lines and extends to Baroda Palace in Mahalaxmi.
The remaining 17 TBMs deployed in Mumbai’s mega infrastructure projects also have a China link. The Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation is using these TBMs for the construction of the 33.5 km underground Metro line 3 and 26 of its underground stations. Of the seven civil work packages for the project three have a Chinese contractor which is working in a joint venture with an Indian firm. The Chinese firms include Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Co Ltd (STEC), China Railway Tunnel Group Co Ltd (CRTG) and Continental Engineering Corporation (CEC).
Almost all the seven contractors have procured their TBMs from vendors with a link to China. Of the TBMs deployed for the Mumbai Metro line 3, four have been supplied by the US-based The Robbins Company, which was recently acquired by a Chinese company. Seven are from the Australian Terratec which has manufacturing facility in China, three from the German firm Herrenkecht which has manufacturing units in China and three from the China-based Shanghai Tunnel Engineering Company.
The global TBM market is presently dominated by China. As per local vendors nearly 90 per cent of the TBMs deployed across India have a Chinese connection.
“China has a dominating presence in the heavy equipment machinery segment. It is not possible to replace the sources of these type of equipment overnight. We will have to depend on Chinese equipment till Indian firms like BHEL or BEML start manufacturing these large machineries,” a former senior official from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority said.
Other officials said the hunt for new vendors for the same equipment would be time consuming and undesirable and set back most of the capital intensive infrastructure projects by ages. The Coastal Road is a Rs 12,700 crore project while the underground Mumbai Metro line 3 is to cost around Rs 32,000 crore.
“Even if you source from a non-Chinese company you never know when it will be acquired by the Chinese. The Robbins Company was a US-based manufacturer of TBMs. In 2016 it merged with China’s state-owned Northern Heavy Industries,” an official from a leading infrastructure construction firm said.
Officials are of the view that despite the present tension between India and China, it was not possible to have a rethink on the usage of these machines. “It is very difficult to avoid Chinese involvement as such a huge task can be done by these specialised and skilled machines that are only available with China,” an official from the BMC said.
“The machine (for the coastal road project) has already arrived. So there is no change in plan on using it,” said R S Kuknoor, Deputy Municipal Commissioner, (Special Engineering).