E Sreedharan : India's Metro Man
Eleven years ago, Delhi’s chief secretary, PV Jayakrishnan, was in a bind. The search committee set up to find a managing director for the proposed Delhi Metro was making no headway. Set a deadline of 120 days to find a man for the job or forgo the Japanese loan of Rs 6,000 crore for the project, Jayakrishnan made frantic calls to his old time friend E Sreedharan, with whom he had closely worked for the Konkan Railway project. Mr Sreedharan, who was working on the last leg of the Konkan project as part of a special assignment, was invited to join the search committee. Little did he know that a trip to Delhi to help an old associate would mark the beginning of a new chapter in his life. After all, at 66, Sreedharan was well past retirement age and was looking forward to pursue other interests once the Konkan Railway was completed. The then Lt Governor of Delhi Tejendra Khanna asked Sreedharan to take over the Delhi Metro project immediately. That was a tall order indeed as the Konkan Railway was in its final phase and Sreedharan needed to monitor it personally to meet the deadline. Little wonder that he was reluctant to take up the new responsibility. Naturally, the bureaucracy was not happy with the Delhi government’s decision to appoint Sreedharan as MD of the Metro project but Sreedharan had some dedicated backers as well. His ability to provide on-site innovative solutions and take up challenges was by then almost folklore in railway corridors. The then cabinet secretary TSR Subramaniam is understood to have said, “If the country can have a prime minister (Narasimha Rao) at 70, Delhi Metro can surely have a 66-year-old MD.” Sreedharan is often referred to as India’s metro man as he has rewritten India’s urban transport script. His story of developing metrorail systems in India started almost 42 years ago in 1966 when he was selected by the railways as India’s candidate for the Colombo plan, a fellowship for engineers, offered by the British government. Sreedharan, who rushes from country to country if not city to city creating networks for people to move faster, got his first lesson on underground trains when he worked on the Victoria line in London as part of his fellowship. Sreedharan was one of the founding members of the Kolkata metro project in 1970 and was involved with the designing and planning in the initial four years. So Sreedharan’s “innovative skills” to find local solutions at project sites are now almost textbook references for any bright rail engineer. Born in Chattanur, a small village near Palakkad in Kerala, Sreedharan was a topper throughout. “The railway service was my first choice. Those days, railways was the first choice for any bright engineer and I was no different. It was challenging and prestigious,” says Sreedharan. It didn’t take long for the challenge to unfold. In 1963, disaster struck the Rameshwaram island when tidal waves washed away the Pamban bridge connecting it with mainland Tamil Nadu. A passenger train was swept away, killing hundreds of people. The Southern Railway decided to restore the bridge and set a target of six months. General manager BC Ganguly advanced the deadline by three months and the Railway Board assigned the task to a 31-year-old executive engineer, Sreedharan. It was a tough task as it was an old bridge, built by the British in late-19th century, with 146 spans and a scherzer, a steel girder which opens up for large vessels to pass under the bridge. Sreedharan took up the challenge and advanced the deadline by a month, making the task tougher. He made the bridge functional in 46 days. Instead of waiting for fresh rail girders to be transported from various parts of India, Sreedharan used pontoon cranes to lift out the girders from the seabed. “It was tough and needed grit. We started by lifting one girder in three days. By the last day we were moving seven girders per day,” he says with a nostalgic smile. “The bridge is operational even today and holds a special corner in my thoughts. I travelled back to Rameshwaram along with my grandchildren a few years back, just to relive those moments which had a great bearing on my career,” Sreedharan says. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t have much of a social life. “Once in a while I go to classical music concerts,” he says. He also makes it a point to visit Kerala to meet relatives. “Very often, he travels by lower class,” says a colleague. A favourite journey is, of course, through the Konkan rail stretch, which he can watch with proprietary pride.