Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

E Sreedharan: More Than The Metro Man

Delhi Metro was just one feather in E Sreedharan’s cap, albeit a large one

Published: Oct 5, 2012 06:20:57 AM IST
Updated: Oct 4, 2012 02:24:56 PM IST
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.


What Makes Him Tick
Sreedharan might as well be 80, but there is little sign of ageing. He walks fast, smiles often, and his eyes glisten with curiosity while discussing any engineering project. He gets in and out of a small car with the agility and speed of a young man.

Sreedharan’s day begins at 4 am. He meditates, reads the Gita, listens to a spiritual discourse, has a bath and breakfast, and gets into his home office at 9.30 am. There are meetings, discussions and calls, unless he decides to work from Kochi’s DMRC office, or when he is travelling. In the evenings, after work, he takes a long walk with his wife. “It’s family time,” he says.

His routine was no different when he was implementing the Delhi Metro project on tight deadlines. He always knew how to manage his time. His colleagues say he is very punctual. “He is never a minute late, and never a minute early.” He never took files home, and discouraged colleagues from calling him unless it was an emergency. At the project sites of Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro, he set up reverse clocks to show impending deadlines.

Sreedharan sets deadlines that can be achieved. Satish Kumar, a director at DMRC, remembers Sreedharan saying: “Whether we take two days or 10 days, in reality we only spend just a few hours on this activity. It can be done.”

The biggest problem in implementing projects is the delay in taking decisions. P Sriram, who has worked with him since the 1970s, recalls an incident during the Konkan Railway project. At one point, his team hit a stone wall while digging a tunnel and an additional tunnel had to be dug. He wanted Sreedharan to take a look. He agreed on the second tunnel, and asked him to go ahead.

“When can we start?” asked Sriram.

Sreedharan replied, “What do you mean when? Of course, start your work now.”

“But, what about approvals, what about the budget?”

Sreedharan said, “Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it. The more the work is delayed, the more it will cost. So, start now.”

The ability to take quick decisions entails a range of other skills, including the ability to quickly process information, calculate probabilities, assess risk, and, have a thorough knowledge of the subject. A wrong decision can prove costly.

During his BPCL visit, a senior manager asked him about dealing with changes that creep in mid-way through a project. Sreedharan told him about the Japanese, who spend a lot of time on planning. But once the plan is finalised, they never allow any changes, for good or bad. Sreedharan said that, as far as possible, one should not get into a situation where changes need to be made to a plan.

Akhileswar Sahay, who has worked with Sreedharan for 21 years and is now a strategic advisor at Delhi Metro, said Sreedharan never had the luxury of time while planning. “But his mind works several times faster than ours,” he said.

Sreedharan encouraged his team to strive for mastery. For the first phase of Delhi Metro, DMRC had engaged consultants. But Sreedharan sent his team abroad to study the best metro networks, and by the time work started, they knew enough to challenge the consultants. For the second phase of Delhi Metro, there were no external consultants.

His approach to ethics is both idealistic and practical. Sriram says he has never seen him shout at anyone in the three decades he has worked with him. If someone made a mistake, he turns everyone’s attention towards a solution. But, he can be ruthless when it comes to ethical lapses.

He believes in creating a system where there is little incentive for fraud. For instance, at Konkan Railway he did away with paying contractors based on measurement books. It took months to complete, and affected the contractor’s cash flow. Instead, he brought in AV Paulose, an authority on railway finance, to device a system where payments can be made faster, based on bills contractors submit. By this method, 85 percent of payments were made within 24 hours, no questions asked, and the rest within a week after the bills were scrutinised.

It is based on trust, and penalty for breaching it is high. But, once the cash flows are certain, contractors had little incentive to cut corners.  Sreedharan followed the same system at DMRC.

His definition of success is not just about completing a project on time, but completing it with transparent integrity.

More than Engineering
For Sreedharan, there is more to a metro project than engineering excellence, effective project management and use of the latest technology. It’s about serving the people. It’s about saving lives. Once, he did a quick calculation of the number of lives the Kochi Metro could save. Even if 10 percent of the traffic moves to the Metro, 20 lives can be saved in a year, and 100 grievous injuries can be avoided. Finishing the project fast is a social responsibility as well, for every single day’s delay in the project will result in a loss of Rs 50 lakh. For him, it’s the right thing to do.

The instinct to do the right thing has often landed him in trouble. Once, there was a vigilance case against a younger colleague. Sreedharan took the case upon himself, because he said his colleague was following his orders. There were enquires against him, including one initiated by Parliament, and each time he came out unscathed. He attributes this to doing what he believed was right, rather than doing something for personal gain.

He has been prepared to work any where. In the first 15 years of his service, he was transferred 25 times. And he was also prepared to quit any day.
The detachment gave him the courage to always do what he believed was right. That, in fact, is the message of the Gita: To act, without desire for the fruits of the action.

In Sreedharan’s sparse room at the DMRC office in Kerala, there is a plaque with a line from Yoga Vasishta Ramayan. It reads: Whatever to be done, I do. But in reality I do not do anything.

(This story appears in the 12 October, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)