many people in Delhi know a man called E. Sreedharan? He is 70.
Should have retired a long time ago with enough achievements to
boast about to his grandchildren. Most of his working life he was
yet another unknown engineer with the railways, until he took up
the challenge of building the Konkan Railway that reduced the Mumbai-Kochi
distance by one-third. Everybody said it wasn’t possible. Also,
that it would cost too much money, will be a white elephant, will
be technologically impossible, will ravage the environment. The
usual reasons why no new infrastructure can be built in India. There
were PILs filed, processions taken out. He defied them all and built
India’s first, genuine railway project of any notable size after
the government was short of money, he raised public bonds and
that was a decade ago when such things were unprecedented. The Konkan
Railway is to Indian infrastructure what the Mohali stadium is to
did not stop there. Everybody laughed when plans to build a metro
rail in Delhi were announced. All of us knew the chaos even a small,
one-line metro in Kolkata had caused for a decade and a half. But
Sreedharan took up the project. It is now being built, ahead of
schedule, in spite of the setback of the Japanese sanctions after
Pokharan and without making a tenth of the mess the construction
of an ordinary flyover creates in Delhi. You can drive around Parliament
Street without noticing the mass of workmen and machines working
underneath and, within a year, unless another PIL or an ‘anonymous’
complaint to the CBI or the CVC stops the work, Delhi will see its
first metro line. Yet, how much credit has Sreedharan got? How often
do you see him on television, on the front pages of our newspapers?
Or maybe you will, when someone envious of what he has achieved,
and the fact that he will leave behind a monument to his own achievement
this city should be proud of, files a complaint with the CBI, CVC,
a PIL, and so on.
He is a modest man. It is not the
self-effacing version of modesty which politicians wear,
but the genuine kind. E. Sreedharan, architect of the Konkan
Railway and the Delhi Metro Rail, believes that all his
achievements were the result of team efforts.
The 71-year-old civil engineer ("still looking forward
to retirement") has been selected as one of the most
outstanding Asians by Time magazine. But he takes it in his
stride. "Why do you want to write about me?" he
asks this correspondent. "Write about the project."
The project is mapping Delhi with a world class metro rail
network. That is his focus and passion now.
Focus and passion. Probably these are the keywords. But when
he is asked about the mantra of success, Sreedharan again
downplays his role. "I have been lucky enough to pick up
the right people for the right job," he says, sitting in
his sparsely furnished office.
So why should one write about Sreedharan? Because he is an
extraordinary man, an extraordinary bureaucrat, who believes
in certain values and has sustained them throughout his life
against umpteen odds.
This was the case from the start. In 1963, disaster struck
the Rameshwaram island when tidal waves washed away the
Pamban bridge connecting it with mainland Tamil Nadu. A
passenger train was swept away, killing hundreds of persons.
The Southern Railway decided to restore the bridge and set a
target of six months. General Manager B.C. Ganguly advanced
the deadline by three months and the Railway Board assigned
the task to a 31-year-old executive engineer, Sreedharan. It
was a tough task as it was an old bridge, built by the
British in late-nineteenth century, with 146 spans and a
scherzer-a steel girder which opens up for large vessels to
pass under the bridge.
Sreedharan took up the challenge and advanced the deadline by
a month, making the task tougher. He made the bridge
functional in 46 days. He achieved this by the application of
some 'commonplace values'-discipline, punctuality and
honesty-and the introduction of a new work culture. These
traits continue. After the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation
(DMRC) was set up, one of the first things Sreedharan did as
managing director was to instil a "sense of corporate
"In private organisations run by the Tatas, Birlas and
Ambanis, it is not difficult to stick to deadlines,"
says Sreedharan. "The word of the boss is final."
In a government set-up, where there are too many bosses and
too few juniors, it is next to impossible. But not totally
impossible, as Sreedharan has proved. He believes in working
with slim organisations. (He also believes in being slim.)
While it took more than two decades to build the Kolkata
metro ("The result of bad planning," says
Sreedharan), Delhi stuck to its deadline of December 2002.
In Delhi, he did not have to face many hurdles. There were no
stay orders, no dharnas. People in the Old Delhi area
(Chandni Chowk) did object to their houses being demolished .
But the DMRC used the tunnel boring machine technology to
solve this problem. It has ensured that there were no major
traffic bottlenecks, no demolition.
He is focused and passionate about his work. His insistence on deadlines had earned him 20 transfers in the early years of his career.
Sreedharan, who has been in the Indian
Railways for 50 years, had successfully completed one
mega-project earlier-the Konkan railway between Maharashtra
and Mangalore. The rail-line was mooted in 1990 by then
railway minister George Fernandes, while talking to Railway
Board members. After stating it, Fernandes himself dismissed
it as impossible.
A month later, Sreedharan went to Fernandes with a
well-charted out plan. "I told him that we will have to
work in a different fashion," he recalls. Probably his
enthusiasm infected Fernandes, who got cabinet approval for
the project within three days. Maharashtra and Kerala
immediately agreed to the project, but Karnataka chief
minister Virendra Patil objected.
Sreedharan, then a member of the Railway Board, went to
Maharashtra, Karnataka, Goa and Kerala and got all the
necessary approvals before his 'retirement'. But retirement
was not to be as Fernandes wanted him to head the West Coast
Railway. Thus the Konkan Rail Corporation was born. It
created an engineering marvel by laying a rail network across
the mountainous Western Ghats.
Sreedharan insists he does not have any special skills to get
the best out of people. "I always found that people
cooperate if you work for a good cause," he says.
Is he a workaholic? "No," says he. "I am
committed to my work but not a workaholic." His
colleagues agree that he does not believe in making people
stay on in the office if they have finished their given task.
"He even takes a nap in the afternoons," says a
Sreedharan, who was born in Chattanur, a small village near
Palakkad in Kerala, does not have much of a social life.
"Once in a while I go to classical music concerts,"
he says. He also makes it a point to visit Kerala at regular
intervals to meet relatives. "Very often, he travels by
lower class," says a colleague. A favourite journey is,
of course, through the Konkan rail stretch, which he can
watch with proprietary pride.
" I have four children," says he. "We were not
really well-off. But my wife, Radha, took care of all those
problems." One son is an engineer but he did not join
the Railways despite his father encouraging him.
"I believe that when an officer is given a particular
task, he should be made responsible to finish it," says
Sreedharan. He almost has an obsession with deadlines. (In
the early years of his career, it earned him 20 transfers.)
Every officer in DMRC keeps a digital board which shows the
number of days left for the completion of the next target. On
April 23, it was 160 days left for the Tis Hazari-Tri Nagar
section of the Delhi Metro to be complete.
So, where he does go from there? "Retirement," he
says with a twinkle in the eyes. He thanks God for giving him
success. "I am a religious person but religion does not
mean going to temples. To me it means leading a virtuous
life," he says.
Success and virtue. A rare combination in today's world. But
they run side by side in Sreedharan's life. Like rail tracks.