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India: infrastructure's secret weapon

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NEW DELHI, India — Just a stone's throw from New Delhi's Commonwealth Games Village, a mammoth Hindu temple testifies to a simple truth: When builders can give laborers a sense of ownership and encourage them to take pride in their work, India's notorious problems getting things done disappear.

Constructed by expert craftsmen using ancient methods, the 140-foot high, nine-domed Akshardham temple was built entirely from white marble and pink sandstone — without the support of steel. Some 7,000 carvers fit blocks together using nothing but a little cement slurry and geometric formulas that have been passed down for generations. They then detailed the structure with more than 200 ornate pillars, 20,000 statues of gods and saints.

But here's the real trick: They pulled it off on schedule and under budget — an achievement that's virtually unheard of in India.

"All the experts who looked at our plans said it would take a minimum of 40 to 50 years to be completed," said Akshardham volunteer Kalpesh Bhatt, speaking at an independently organized TEDx event in Delhi earlier this year — an offshoot of the California-based idea-sharing symposium TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design).

Today, the temple, which is surrounded by a 100-acre cultural complex, attracts about 5,000 visitors per day. Apart from the ancient-style, stone temple, the park includes a life-sized diorama depicting the life and works of Bhagwan Swaminarayan, the inspiration for the Gujarat-based Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism that built the cultural complex. An IMAX theater screens a film on the 18th-century pilgrimage the god performed as a young yogi. A cultural boat ride ferries visitors through exhibits showcasing 10,000 years of Indian history — such as the world's first university and some of the discoveries made by ancient Indian scientists.

"It's an organization of middle class, professional people, who are committed to a cause," said Janak Dave, a spokesman for the Swaminarayan sect. "Some scholars compare it to the Presbyterian approach."

Even for these frugal teetotalers, keeping the $45 million project on schedule and under budget was no mean feat. To build the temple in under five years required some 300 million man-hours of labor. The project supervisors, including head engineer, Ashwin Patel, a civil engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi), were all volunteers. To meet the demand for skilled craftsmen, they sent a thousand stonecarvers back to their villages to recruit and train their relatives — whose caste tied them to the art. And to bring them on board, many volunteers moved out to the villages so the added craftsmen could work from home. At its peak, the project employed 7,000 craftsmen and 4,000 volunteers who acted as managers and supervisors.

"Stonework is always difficult, because most of the work is done manually," said Patel. "So it takes maximum manpower, and intricate carving is very time-consuming."

What Bhatt calls "small process innovations" played a key role in cutting costs and speeding the project to completion. For example, by first creating plaster of paris and clay models of the stones they needed, and then building a computer database of their exact dimensions, the builders were able to reduce the amount of stone chipped away into waste from 30 to 40 percent to just 8 percent. Moreover, by using computer design software and huge machines to cut the enormous stone blocks delivered by the quarry into shapes approximating the eventual end-product, engineers reduced the time it took craftsmen to carve the blocks, friezes and statues from 20 days to as short as a single day.

But the most intriguing aspect of the project was the factor that Patel cites as the biggest reason for its success. It wasn't "Six Sigma" or "Total Quality Management" or any of the dozens of change agents that Indian business relies on to improve performance. It succeeded because the volunteers and workers cared, and they took pride in their work. Training thousands of laborers to become artisans, Akshardham increased their earning power by six times, brought new life to an ancient art, and gave the new craftsmen a project of unprecedented size and complexity to work on.

"Only because of the grace of our guruji, because it's a noble job, everybody worked in good faith," Patel said.

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