Man of tomorrow

SPEED AND DISCIPLINE E. Sreedharan, back home in his village, raring to make the metro dream real Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup  

The pretty ancestral home in white and green nestles in a bylane in Ponnani, a taluk in Malappuram District. Kuttipuram, the nearest railway station, is about 20 kilometres away. The building is over 70 years old, the same plant has sat in the same pot for over 50 years and the portrait of the family head is nailed to the wall. In here, nourished by the past, E. Sreedharan, the most popular civil engineer in the country, draws up audacious plans for the future.

This was meant to be his “retirement” in his home State. “But I seem to have jumped from the frying pan to the fire,” jests the 79-year-old, clad in a crisp white shirt and mundu, sandalwood paste drawn in an unsteady line on his forehead. After 16 years as the chief of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), Sreedharan stepped down in December last year. By then the Delhi Metro had completed two phases, become the benchmark for efficiency and wiped away the travel woes of a million commuters.

Back home

But back home he was met with more unfinished dreams. The Government of Kerala wanted Sreedharan to be the anchor for its Kochi Metro project, the monorail projects in Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram, and also the nascent plan for a high-speed rail corridor to bring the North and the South of the State closer.

“I feel an emotional attachment to these projects since I have been involved with them since its inception. And having sold the idea of a high-speed rail corridor, I feel a moral responsibility to see it through,” he says.

First train journey

It has been an eventful journey for the young boy from Akalanam, a village near Pattambi. “I used to be fascinated by trains and I remember my first train journey from Pattambi to Kozhikode with my father. We had to walk to the station, which was 10 kilometres away, to catch the morning train. We started the previous day, stayed at a friend's place and then took the train,” he says, tracing the beginning of his enduring passion. That was in 1940 and the journey to his sister's place in Koyilandy, with whom he stayed during his schooling in Kozhikode and Palakkad. His classmate at BEM High School and Victoria College in Palakkad was T.N. Seshan, former chief election commissioner.

“There were two of us from the Malabar who got through for engineering that year, Seshan and I. While I joined for engineering in Kakkinada (Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University), he did not take up engineering and instead joined the MCC (Madras Christian College),” remembers Sreedharan.

Saga of success

After his course and a short stint at the Kozhikode Polytechnic Institute as a teacher, he joined the Indian Railways to begin an enduring saga of successful projects.

Through the re-building of the Pamban bridge in Rameswaram in the 1960s to making the architectural wonder, the Konkan Railway and the technologically advanced Delhi Metro, Sreedharan built a reputation for integrity and efficiency. Analysts study him as a model for leadership, dissecting thread-bare his every initiative.

But Sreedharan keeps things simple. “It is a question of creating proper environment at work, about motivating the employees on every occasion. I have been a government employee for 36 years in the Railways,” he reminds us. At the DMRC, an employee on hiring is given training in yoga and breathing exercises.

Yoga and discipline

“There are refresher courses too. Yoga helps them in being disciplined, increases energy, keeps them motivated and healthy,” he adds. Each employee on his/her birthday would receive a cheque of Rs 1,000 along with a card signed by Sreedharan, and the same goes for weddings and other occasions.

Integrity, loyalty and trustworthiness rank high among Sreedharan's pre-requisites. When a bridge under construction collapsed in Delhi killing five, he took moral responsibility and resigned. “I did not apportion blame and it was great comfort to my people,” he says.

For public good

Sreedharan never loses sight of the goal of a project — the public good. “When we started the Delhi Metro many thought it would be a white elephant. Its implementation, they said, would disrupt life in the city like it did in Kolkata during the metro construction. But things worked out smoothly even when we were digging tunnels underneath. We planned everything in advance. It would be that way if you have a deep concern for the convenience and comfort of the people,” he says.

Half-century career

Over a career spanning half a century, Sreedharan kept pace with technological leaps in the field, especially with the metro. “I went around the world and did my homework. We have to know our limitations. If we don't have expertise in some field, we should not be ashamed about borrowing or purchasing it from outside,” he says.

If retirement is meant to be the ticket to slowing down, Sreedharan's life proved otherwise. In his sixties, he plunged headlong into the Konkan and Delhi Metro projects. “I see it as part of a divine dispensation to do service to the nation. I never looked at these assignments as opportunities for employment or earning money. I remember my interview for the DMRC post. The chief minister, lieutenant governor, chief secretary, transport minister and others were present. They asked me what my terms were for taking up the project. I told them there are no terms. I must deliver the project. I must have the power to choose my team and have no interference from politicians and bureaucrats,” says Sreedharan.

A project wins his total commitment, but once it is done Sreedharan believes in moving on. “I don't look back at the Konkan or Delhi Metro and feel proud about it.”

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 3:36:42 AM |

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