FEATURES/Leadership Awards 2012 | Oct 5, 2012 | 8894 views

E Sreedharan: More Than The Metro Man

Delhi Metro was just one feather in E Sreedharan’s cap, albeit a large one
E Sreedharan: More Than The Metro Man
Image: Sivaram V for Forbes India

Award:  Lifetime Achievement
Name: E Sreedharan
Age: 80
Why He Won: For building some of the largest infrastructure projects since India’s independence, despite working for a government organisation. He faced a lot of interference from politicians in the early years, but Sreedharan put his foot down and demanded that he be given a free hand.

In 2000, following a long and ugly public spat with the Ministry of Railway, E Sreedharan wanted to quit Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC).

He had wanted to use coaches of standard gauge—used by metros globally—for the Delhi Metro, while the ministry wanted to use broad gauge, like the rest of the rail network in India.  

The issue went to a group of ministers, which favoured the railway ministry. Sreedharan, who had been selected on the basis of his competence, found that the government did not trust his judgement. He saw no reason to continue with DMRC.

He then turned to the Bhagwad Gita. For more than 15 years, he has been reading a couple of stanzas every day and ruminating on their meaning.
On that day in 2000, he reflected on the central theme of the Gita, where Arjun—looking at the gathered armies—feels despondent, drops his weapons, and tells Krishna he will not fight. Krishna says that, no matter what, Arjun has to fulfill his duty.

Sreedharan decided not to quit, but, instead, to stay on and fight his battles.

Before Delhi Metro…
The Delhi Metro had not been Sreedharan’s first battle.

In 1963, he had been given six months to repair Pamban Bridge, which connected Rameshwaram to the mainland. Sreedharan, barely 30 at the time, took 46 days.

In the 1990s, he was in charge of Konkan Railway, a 760-km stretch cutting across the Western Ghats. Nearly 150 bridges and 92 tunnels had to be built. He took seven years, from the initial survey till the launch.

But, Delhi Metro presented its own challenges. The memories of the Kolkata Metro—building the 17-km stretch had taken 22 years—were still very strong. The cost of the project had overshot its budget 14 times; fatal accidents and building collapses had followed underground digging. The experience made politicians across the country shy away from taking up another metro project for years.

Policy makers largely viewed work on the Delhi Metro through this prism of scepticism.

But all this changed when things started moving fast. Sreedharan, too, got his way: After the first phase, the metro moved to standard gauge.
Delhi Metro carries 2.2 million people every day and earns Rs 4 crore a day, more than enough to cover operational expenses and interest payments (60 percent of the project was funded through debt).

World over, a metro train is considered late if it is delayed by two minutes. For Delhi Metro, this is one minute. With such an exacting standard, it has been punctual 99.97 percent of the time. Sheila Dixit’s electoral success—she was elected Delhi’s chief minister three times in a row—is attributed to the Metro.   

…and After
Sreedharan retired from DMRC in December 2011. He was 65 when he had taken up the project. “But, I had felt very young then, both physically and mentally. Today, it’s slightly different. I have become a little old mentally, and very much more bodily,” he said. He wanted to retire to his ancestral village, and live a placid life in Ponnani, on the coast of Kerala.

He moved to Ponnani, but his retired life did not work out the way he had planned. Kerala’s Chief Minister Oommen Chandy wanted Sreedharan’s help in implementing the Kochi metro project.

In terms of engineering, it is not a tough project. The terrain is flat; the train lines were to run above the ground; he has the support of both the Centre and the state. The Kerala government also agreed to Sreedharan’s wish of making DMRC the implementing agency for the project.  

But a project of this size does not come without its difficulties. Tom Jose, the MD of Kochi Metro till August, had differences with Sreedharan. After moving out, he told a newspaper that the Kerala government was depending too much on a single person.

There will be further problems: The rails will pass through some crowded spots, people will have to put up with construction, and the project will have to be completed in three years.

Recently, Sreedharan went to the Kochi refinery of Bharat Petroleum to speak to its top executives on project management. He spoke to about 20 senior officials, shared his experiences, and took questions. The senior officials, many with greying hair, lapped it up like undergraduates listening to a star professor.

This role—of listening, advising, motivating—seems to fit him like wheels on a track. He is a good speaker, and his advice doesn’t come across as pontification; it’s almost like a suggestion. His sense of humour—which sparked off a few spontaneous bursts of laughter at BPCL—reveals the absurdities of corporate life.

Sreedharan could well have opted for a placid life, and yet sated his sense of duty by being a source of knowledge, wisdom and inspiration. Why would he take up responsibility that might pull him into the world of politics, bureaucratic turf wars and even put his reputation at some risk?

To know why, one needs to look not at what he has accomplished, but how.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 12 October, 2012
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Comments (21)
Saleel May 29, 2016
Very inspiring... committed, punctual and live on principal and discipline is the way to success.
Abani Aug 29, 2015
Informative and inspiring.
Ranjini.k Dec 11, 2014
A unique personality who proved that in this world of corruption ,one can perform honest work.
Biju Kr Apr 29, 2014
I am proud of mr.metroman shri e. shridharan,for his wonderful project of Kokan Raily. Delhi metro railway
Gurudev Nov 12, 2013
Great Man. Great article from Forbes. Keralites are very lucky to get this busy man available for their Metro. Our Government can use his expertise for drafting future metro rail proposals / specifications
G Srikumar Oct 7, 2013
India's first sea bridge the "Pamban", Konkan Railway, and Delhi Metro are Sreedharan's greatest and nation's finest engineering feats. Speaking as Keralites we are proud of his association with Kochi Metro. leave aside the physical discomfort we Kochiets have to put up with, we know the project is in safe hands.
Suku Madhavan Sep 27, 2013
very kind of you. metro man/konkan railway. thanks god.
suku madhavan, delhi
C.p.mahajan Aug 1, 2013
i am proud of mr.metroman shri e. shridharan,for his wonderful project of Kokan Raily. Delhi metro railway.i want him to take a project of AKOLA-KHANDWA RAIL> JOINING TWO STATES MAHARASHTRA-MADHYA PRADESH>(THIS PROJECT WILL ALSO LINK KERALA>ANDHRA>KARNATAK>M.P.RAJASTHAN>DELHI>PANJAB.thanks
Nandoor Ravindran Jun 5, 2013
E. Sreedharan is an inspiration to our young generation.
R Shanker May 16, 2013
E Shreedharan is truly a "BHARAT RATNA"
Response to R Shanker:
Himanshu Mar 2, 2014
R shanker........You are 101% right......he deserves BHARAT RATNA for the work he has done at the age of 80
Dr.nahela Bernal Dutta Oct 29, 2012
E Sreedharan, is truly a specimen for duty is worship... who flew to new horizons without quitting from the political pressure.Today one of proudest moment for DELHI is the Metro Service...
Bhattathiri Oct 23, 2012
Mr.Sreedharan's art of Management has become a part and parcel of everyday life, be it at home, in the office or factory and in Government. In all organizations, where a group of human beings assemble for a common purpose irrespective of caste, creed, and religion, management principles come into play through the management of resources, finance and planning, priorities, policies and practice. Management is a systematic way of carrying out activities in any field of human effort. Management is a continuing process, and managers are always involved in some way with the principles of: planning, organizing, influencing, controlling and decision making. These principles are designed to help managers accomplish organizational objectives, and good managers will use them. These principles are not isolated but are interwoven throughout the manager’s thoughts and actions.
An Oct 19, 2012
This man is amazing. India is lucky.
Kalyan Oct 6, 2012
Lovely story Ram. Good read.
Subramani Oct 6, 2012
Nicely written about a good man and his excellent work
Manish Oct 5, 2012
E Sreedharan should definitely role model for all young Indians.

Read for some more info
Ismail Odangadan Oct 5, 2012
Dr Abdul Kalam praised him as Living Mahatma. Sincere People always is the real champion of innocent common people who always dreaming of our beloved nation
Arvind Krishna Oct 5, 2012
"To know why, one needs to look not at what he has accomplished, but how"
Sir you a true role model for all Indians.
Jaics Ben Oct 5, 2012
An amazing and inspiring article...i have been on the delhi metro....and i have to say its work exceeded any thing i had imagined....i looks and feels as if we are in a posh airport....especially the connought place station....i am really proud to call him a fellow keralite....kudos sir.....
Vivek Taneja Oct 5, 2012
i feel every indian must read this article
Next Article in Leadership Award 2012
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