'Arun Lakhani' MD Vishwaraj Infrastructure Pvt Ltd.

Matching community welfare with corporate consideration

When the world is in the midst of change, when adversity and opportunity are almost indistinguishable, this is the time for visionary leadership, when leaders need to look beyond the survival needs of those they're serving.

Displaying a similar vision, Arun Lakhani, managing director of Vishwaraj Infrastructure Pvt Ltd. has brought about a revolutionary concept to ensure that water, the most precious resource of this planet is not just conserved but its distribution is organized enough to reach those standing at the lowest rung of the social ladder.

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His concept of creating value for all the stakeholders by reducing inefficiency is the simple concept acting as pivot for all work done by his firm till date.

It is this approach that he also applies to the 24x7 water supply projects that his company has been awarded in Nagpur city in association with Veolia, a French firm which is considered number one in water management in the world. A similar contract has been awarded to VIL on sole merit in some cities of Karnataka also.

Measuring accurately the strain on every basic facility required by urban citizens, Lakhani says, “Developed countries are providing services and facilities through viable financial structures. In my opinion we too must make self sustaining structures in public bodies to ensure long lasting high quality service.”

Saddened by the abject state of numerous infrastructure projects, which were created and added to the society over a period, Lakhani says, “We somehow lost sight of accountability on maintenance and operation of these facilities. Due to lack of civic and moral consciousness maximum of these projects have gone to seed or are in an extremely bad shape today.”

Keeping a firm focus on what the requirements of rapidly rising urban population would be over a longer period of time, Lakhani considers not just setting up of facilities but maintenance of roads, supply of water, electricity and management of solid waste and sewage treatment to be crucial in coming times.

He has envisaged a simple formula of two fold action to rally around these factors. The first is to plan out accountability and budgets to maintain and rehabilitate existing facilities. The second is to invest in rehabilitating the existing assets and adding to them wherever necessary. All this may appear easy on paper but is fraught with difficulties when execution begins. “We are facing innumerable difficulties in our water project. Data about public utilities like water supply systems is non-existent even with the civic bodies,” he says.

It’s not just implementing the projects which Lakhani finds essential. His emphasis is on upon the need to recover operation and maintenance costs from the tariffs. “It is crucial if the projects are to be made self sustaining. With central government giving solid support through schemes like JNNURM and UIDSSMT, I feel it is very much doable too.”

What Lakhani considers excellent about such schemes is the public private partnership to which he has added a fourth P for people. “People as largest stakeholders in any PPP must participate to monitor the contracts done between the two Ps. This would ensure fairness and transparency. In fact they should be involved in these projects and help in implementing them,” he says. Taking a holistic approach towards such projects Lakhani has even defined the roles of each.

P - as Public - Government - Policy making - grant support

P- private - efficiency increment and investment

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P- public as People - monitor the contract and help in communication with people to ensure fair implementation. Without the addition of fourth P the credibility of PPP is always in question he states.

His stress on people’s participation stems from the fact that a lot of ambiguity and mistrust gets generated in the execution of such socio political contracts. “A feeling of being cheated always remains with the public even if interactions and meetings are conducted before any PPP contract as we did in Nagpur for the 24x7 project. This is a very unfair situation for all the parties concerned,” he feels.

A stickler for transparency in all actions, Lakhani feels that as largest beneficiaries of such projects the people should nominate a credible NGO to discuss the issues and find solutions together. “I feel they be made the advisory. I also stress on the continued involvement of people’s representatives at all stages. This increases communication and makes it easier to win trust and stimulate more responsible behaviour from interested groups.” It also roots out scepticism and allegations and counter allegations which are otherwise part and parcel of such projects he feels.

But its Lakhani’s astuteness and an inclusive approach which gives him and his organisation the strength to perform and deliver even in face of stiff oppositions. “We are in an unenviable situation of doing too many firsts, hence the opposition and controversies,” says Lakhani. “We need to understand that water PPPs are more of social projects rather than technical piping or metering projects.”

His company understands that such 30 years contracts need large scale communication and interaction with people and winning over their trust is crucial to the success. The involvement of fourth P as in people stems from this belief. The scenario if viewed from international perspective becomes difficult to explain or comprehend. But at Orange City Water, as the project has been named, it is a learning period. As socio-economic and even political realities come to fore they are being understood and acted upon along with their partners.

It is not the first time that Arun Lakhani has undertaken a project which involves the government but works for the people. In fact his biggest strength lies in picking up a concept which is ahead of time and structuring it into doable steps to bring it to reality, with emphasis on benefit to all the stakeholders. At the time when LPG was decanalised, Lakhani launched Mahagas with a revolutionary approach. It pioneered the path breaking concept of smaller bottling plants catering to smaller radius which was till that time unheard of. Mahagas - the first private LPG player in India was highly successful as it worked to create a win-win situation for the consumers who were the largest stakeholders in the success of this enterprise.

The project worked on the simple logic of saving wasteful expenditure being incurred in returning empty cylinders over long distances (as was the practice). It was so effective, that although ridiculed at that time, now all the large oil companies are getting their cylinders filled up from such smaller bottling plants to save on costs. He had the vision which propelled him to set up smaller 100 MT bottling plants. “We installed these plants to cater to a radius of 150 Kms unlike large plants where they take it to 500-600 kms and bring back the empties. Today that model is being followed and utilised by oil companies to save costs on transportation.” Describing his business ideology as one of creating a favourable situation for the people, Lakhani says, “Look, the ideology is simple. It is one which ensures a winning deal for all stakeholders. This alone can make a PPP successful. If we wish to make such projects sustainable for 25-30 years, then they have to be fair and transparent.” It is this obsession for putting people and community welfare ahead of all commercial interest, which makes Lakhani stand out in the world of cut throat competitions and dog eats dog corporate culture of the day. But he dismisses all such parallels. “To make a difference in lives of millions of people it is essential that an organization puts their interest first. Then alone can we win their trust and faith which will help in sustaining the project and bringing in long term gains. And this is very doable while you are in business as well. One need not forgo everything and become "sanyasi" to do public good,” he feels.

Taking the more arduous road of executing PPPs which are long term and have people as the end beneficiaries, Lakhani gives a miss to the instant commercial gains which can be earned through government contracts. “I do sometimes wonder what have I got myself into? There is an urge in me to remove inefficiencies in public domain and to improve lives of the people. I like to bring in new ideas to create value out of removal of wastage, and inefficiency,” he says citing his Maha Gas experience. Ever the optimist, he likes to take up such challenges and gets feeling of deep satisfaction when his ideas flower and bloom. Firm in the belief that continuous supply of healthy water will cut down health expenditures and water wastage, and will provide quality life to millions of people, Lakhani says, “I am sure the same people who are criticizing us today will say good words about us once the results start appearing.”

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