E Sreedharan: More Than The Metro Man
Image: Sivaram V for Forbes India
Award: Lifetime Achievement
Name: E Sreedharan
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.
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.