In these times, when almost everyone is looked at with suspicion, it is rare that personalities become bigger than the institutions they create. As 79-year-old E Sreedharan prepares to call it a day at the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the veteran engineer, credited with creating urban India’s dream project, wants to settle down in Chathannur, his native village near Thrissur in Kerala. In an interview with Jyoti Mukul & Sreelatha Menon, the DMRC managing director says he, too, has regrets like anybody else. Edited excerpts:
In a country where project execution is always considered a challenge, how were the Konkan Railways and Delhi Metro made possible?
The Konkan Railways was entirely different from Delhi Metro but in any project execution, there are certain fundamentals. The person executing the project should realise time is money. The project has to be done without cost overrun. These two fundamental targets have to be followed. To achieve that, decision-making should be fast because each day of delay will cost a couple of crores. For instance, a day of delay in phase-I of the metro cost Rs 1.4 crore. In Phase-II, it was Rs 2.5 crore, and in Phase-III, it was Rs 8-8.5 crore. Not only the leader but the entire team has to realise the cost of delay.
There could be factors external to the team that could cause delays.
In any project, there will be certain hurdles—you may not get land or tree-cutting permission or some of the sanctions or even money on time. You have to get over these. For instance, if a piece of land is not available, it does not prevent you to go ahead with work in other areas and when land is available, you can concentrate on it. Certain innovations are required. We had a typical case in Section II, when we did not get land for the Chattarpur station till seven months before opening of the line. A station requires 2.5-3 years for construction. We prefabricated the entire station in advance in steel. It meant extra cost. The moment we got land, we finished the station in five months, so that we had two months for commission.
At the close of 57 years of professional life, how do you compare the three organisations (Indian Railways, Konkan Railways and DMRC) where you worked?
The railways is a well-oiled organisation, with a great tradition of more than 150 years. It has set roles and procedures but also gives a lot of freedom. I never felt I worked in a government organisation. KRCL was a greenfield (new) organisation. There, I had more powers and flexibility but there were many obstacles from bureaucracy and politicians. But you have to get over these things. You cannot weep. You do not get a shoulder to weep on. There was a time when, we had no money. Money had to be borrowed from the market but the capital market situation was very bad because of the Harshad Mehta scandal. Money was not available but contractors worked without payment for six months because we had built credibility. That sort of thing depends on the leader and the team. Today, nobody will do that because they do not have faith
How do you create faith?
By dealing with them in a fair, frank and transparent manner. When Konkan Railways had started, there was nobody to award contracts because at that time, I had not taken over as CMD. I was only official on special duty. But I did not want to waste time. I flew to Mangalore and spoke to about six contractors. I told them I will take over as CMD in one or two months, so they should start work. They started work without signing any agreement. The government or auditor will not allow that but purely on my assurances, they started work. Most of them were railway contractors and they knew my work. The contracts were for Rs 30-40 lakh but in 1990-91, that was big money. Similarly, we had to acquire land from 40,000 owners. Normal land acquisitions would have taken 40 years but 80 per cent land we took over through personal contacts on consent letters, with a promise that they would be paid compensation. We had a practical approach to the process.
Konkan Railways did face a lot of criticism, especially because it did not make money
Bureaucracy and politicians were against us. The project was conceived by the Railways. They had identified a certain number of trains to run on the section but when the line was completed, they continued to run on the longer route because the railways earn money on the length transverse and not on point to point. They made KRCL suffer but by that time, I had left. If all the trains promised had come, it would not have been in a problem.
How did you come to DMRC?
The Delhi government was not satisfied by the candidates for managing director, so it set up a search committee. Delhi chief secretary Jayakrishnan was earlier chief secretary of Goa when Konkan Railways was constructed. He knew me personally and my style of functioning, so he wanted me to be on the search committee. By that time, the Japanese government came with the funding plan and an agreement was signed in February 1997 but still they could not find an MD. Japan gave a threat that if you do not get the managing director by October, we will cancel the loan. Ultimately, they asked me to take over as MD, so that the Japanese funding was not withdrawn. I was not keen at that point of time, since Konkan Railways was not over by then. For some time, I was in charge of both.
How different was Delhi Metro?
Delhi Metro is a much better and professionally competent organisation. A metro has highly complex technology which a normal railway project does not have. I could build a good team here. I look back with a lot of pride and satisfaction of having achieved something remarkable for the city of Delhi.
But wasn’t it a personality-driven organisation?
No doubt, I would say I came here with a certain reputation for handling projects efficiently, integrity and competence. I had advantage of status, since I had retired as member, Railway Board. That helped. I could pick up my team very fast because of my association with the railways. It could get them trained. Another successful factor was that both the governments knew the city cannot survive without a Metro. They were aggressively positive and had confidence in me. We were able to deliver the way it was promised. The project report of Phase-I envisaged completion in 10 years but one of the first decisions I took was to finish it in seven years. We did it in seven years and three months. There was a query from the government of India, asking why the damn hurry? The money they would have released in 10 years had to be released in seven years. But when they saw the result, they started having confidence and we were able to get what we wanted.
Now that you are leaving, how will you ensure the organisation runs the same way?
We have structured the organisation in such a way that we have two roles — to run trains safely and with reliability, in sections that are operational, and the other is construction of new lines. These are two verticals but the top team is the same. If there is a spurt in the operational side, they will handle it first. I have built a good team here. A project is successful only with a team, not just with the leader. I am only stepping down. The team is continuing. They have imbibed the work culture, so why should there be a problem? My successor, Mangu Singh, is very competent and versatile, so there should not be any problem, provided the work culture is preserved and improved, which is different from government culture
Is it true you kept bureaucrats away from the organisation?
I have no aversion to them but here was a project only technical people can handle. An IAS man cannot handle it. If I ask him to write a specification for metro trains, an IAS man would not be able to do it. If a train is delivered, he would not know the problem. But they had bureaucratic superintendence. My board of directors are IAS officers.
When we started, the board of directors were all IAS officers. But I should say to their credit, they had full confidence on me and gave me all the powers. They knew they would not be able to deliver the way I was delivering. Even today, all directors, except functional directors, are IAS.
After finishing your tenure at DMRC, do you have regrets?
I still have regrets. That happens when you have a big project. Even when you run a family, you feel there are some things you could have done better. I have been in-charge of the organisation and there are areas where we could have done better. One of the regrets is bringing two types of gauges.
We never wanted broad gauge but that was thrust upon us. When broad gauge was decided, I wanted to quit because I thought it was wrong. I was persuaded to stay on. Other regret is that I have not been able to carry the state government for providing feeder services. There is no integrated transport system. There is no common ticket available. There I failed. The state government was not cooperating. It is not politicians but bureaucrats that were blocking.
The other area where probably we could have done much better is improvement around stations, just like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. We could have posh shopping centres. All our efforts were blocked by MCD and DDA. They always quote development control norms.
Our effort was to provide the transport system. These were all subsidiary requirements, which we were not devoting attention to because we were so busy building and running metros.
How did you react to the two major accidents on metro construction sites?
In a big infrastructure project of this type, accidents can happen but not with the severity with which it happened. When the Laxmi Nagar accident happened, I was very harsh with my staff and contractors but still the Zamrudpur accident happened. The fault was not with engineers or with contractors but with the designers. I took moral responsibility. I decided I will quit. I called my directors that I take the responsibility and will resign. Before that, I sent my resignation to the chief minister. Probably that bold decision helped to retrieve the situation, otherwise the public would have been against us and the government would have reacted badly. I did not want to continue here. I came back to office to empty my room when the chief minister called and asked me to continue, since lines were not complete and the Commonwealth Games were coming. I pleaded for time. At home, she sent a messenger with a letter asking me to withdraw resignation. Then I thought over it, that in the larger interest of the nation, it would be wise to withdraw the resignation.
After a long career, what do you plan to do now?
I will be 80 next June. I think I am quite old. My idea is to cut off all professional work. I don’t like to work for others or work for any contractor and any city. I will go back to my village and pursue things which I could not do so far in my life like reading Srimad Baghvatam, Upanishads and other Vedic literature. I will miss certain things but I will gain certain things. I will miss a good well-oiled organisation. I can give any order and it will get carried out but then it is only external. I will have more internal gains—more peace of mind and better health. There are various phases of life. When you were a child, your favourite thing was toy but when you grow up, you have no attachment to toys but have attachment to your family but when you grow old even that attachment goes away. My professional and family lives have been satisfactory.