For sound working-capital management of an organisation, especially a contracting company, invoicing needs to be closely tracked. The submission of invoices for the right quantity of work in time, getting them certified, and following up for and realising timely payment reflect the efficiency of the firm. Very often, the contractor has to run from pillar to post after completing a project to get it certified for payment. There are also cases where the contractor makes exaggerated claims and takes the client for a ride. These lacunae occur due to a variety of reasons, some of which may seem absurd and preposterous.

Story of the Stolen Well

In a popular comedy scene in a Tamil movie, comedy actor Vadivel runs to the police station, cries out to the inspector that the well dug in his field is missing and requests the police to help restore the well to him. The bemused inspector, on hearing the story of a ‘lost well’ for the first time in the annals of crime, takes off his police uniform, quits his job and flees the scene in his boxers. In this weird case, it appears there is no well in the first place; a loan is obtained for a non-existent well by bribing an official. Faced with the threat of inspection of the well by an official, the character played by the actor lodges a complaint of ‘missing well’. The story of a stolen well may sound fictitious but what about money realised from a vanished bridge?

Bridge on the River Kwai

The veteran of several projects, A. Ramakrishna, former President of L&T who headed its ECC (Construction) Division, once while sharing his insights on the intricacies of managing contracts, highlighted a curious case from ECC’s history. In 1956-57, ECC’s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) arm was awarded a prestigious contract for construction of a bridge for the World War II Hollywood movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai (TBRK), directed by David Lean and produced by Sam Spiegel. The star cast included William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Alec Guinness. The project was to build a railway bridge across a river near Kitulgala in Ceylonfor shooting the climax scene in which the bridge had to be blasted as a train approached it.

Pay and Blast

ECC constructed the wood and steel bridge in just eight months. Meanwhile, the project cost overshot its contract value. Just before the bridge was to be blasted, some reservations were expressed: “Team TBRK has not yet certified the work completed. Soon, the bridge will be wholly destroyed. Where then will there be evidence for an engineer to certify that the bridge was built at all?” Soren Kristian Toubro, L&T’s co-founder, realised the implications of such a scenario and obtained a legal injunction using which he ensured that a negotiated settlement had been reached before the climax was shot. According to lore, the bridge stood firm when the bomb was first triggered and collapsed only in the next attempt! Incidentally, it was the first bridge built by L&T. The movie became a smash hit and bagged an Oscar.

(The author works as AGM (Powertech Engineering LLC), Muscat, and formerly served in the L&T group.)

(This article was published on November 5, 2012)
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