- Excerpts from India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan - June 27, 2020
Excerpts from India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E. Sreedharan by Rajendra B. Aklekar, published by Rupa Publications is the only biography that has been personally endorsed by Dr E Sreedharan
Born in the Kingdom of Travancore, in an area that is today Palakad District in the state of Kerala, Sreedharan—like Brunel in nineteenth century—has been successfully involved in multiple projects like railway lines, bridges, India’s first biggest-ever ship, a new-age Metro system; and like Sir MV, his work has spread across the subcontinent.
Ellattuvalapil Sreedharan was born on 12 June 1932, and has lived through some of the most momentous times in modern Indian history. He witnessed Indian Independence (he was then a student in class 10), changes in society, wars with China and Pakistan, the all-India railway strike in 1974, the Emergency and much more. A study of his career graph shows, however that he remained disconnected from such public events, always focusing on the task at hand, never deviating from it, howsoever big the event taking place around him.
This is the story of Dr E. Sreedharan-a twenty-first century icon similar to Brunel and Sir MV; a man who has changed the face of the railways, and of public transport in India. Two key railway projects helmed by him have changed the way India travels. The first is the 760-km stretch of the Konkan Railway, carved out of the extremely challenging terrain of India’s Western Ghats—a project virtually abandoned by the British as ‘not feasible’. It was completed by Sreedharan and his team within seven years and when finished it cut short the rail-travel distance between Ahmedabad and Mangalore by 1,218km.
The second key project is the Delhi Metro Railway, built in a crowded city with as little disturbance as possible. This again took about seven years to complete and is a successful model that offers a practical solution to urban chaos.
Now being replicated in almost every major city across the country, it has proven to be the dream solution for every urban transport problem.
While these and many more success stories abound around Sreedharan, not many know of the private battles he has fought with integrity for his principles, nor have many have heard the anecdotes behind the biggest infrastructure projects he has led.
Did you know, for instance, that as Chairman-cum-Managing Director (CMD) of the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL)—India’s most difficult railway project carved out of the forested terrain of the Western Ghats—he was given an official appointment letter only two years after he joined the project, and that his take-home salary was just Rs 1,080? The rationale was that Sreedharan had officially retired from the Railways and had been drawing pension at the time he took up this Project. The book narrates this story and his battle.
A look at his service record reveals several success stories—building the India’s first biggest-ever ship, and reconstructing a cyclone-ravaged bridge in record time, among others. Revered and respected by students, engineers and millions of Indians, Sreedharan is still a consultant for numerous Metro and rail projects. He has been awarded honorary doctorates, prizes, lifetime achievement awards from institutions and colleges across the sub-continent, the Government’s second-highest civilian award the Padma Vibhushan, as well as the Padma Shri. He has also been bestowed French and Japanese Government honours.
Despite the bouquets and brickbats, Sreedharan remains a humble, down-to-earth government service railway engineer who has stuck to his old-fashioned values, instinct and integrity right through his career and has still managed to get outstanding results.
THE SECRETS BEHIND SREEDHARAN’S SUCCESS
Former President of India and world-renowned space scientist Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, speaking on 8 September 2012 at the 31st National Meet of the National Institute of Personnel Management, in Kochi stated, ‘E Sreedharan is one leader in India who worked with integrity and succeeded till the end.’ How can one achieve such results always, especially working in a Government set-up?
The answer to this was given by Sreedharan himself during his 30-minute speech at the Project Management National Conference 2012, a three-day professional development event, conducted by Project Management Institute (PMI) India and hosted by PMI Chennai India Chapter & PMI Kerala Chapter. The following excerpts give an important glimpse on the work culture and ethics followed by Sreedharan and his work, in his own words:
These two projects—Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro—are meant to run trains. We realised that unless we are punctual we cannot expect our trains to be punctual. This realization came right from the beginning. Punctuality is also equally important for project management because we have to finish projects on time.
We had a system first on Konkan Railway and later on the Delhi Metro of what is known as a countdown clock—a clock ,at all offices and all the important sites, that indicated how many days were left for that particular component of the project to be completed. The countdown clock used to automatically lose a day, every day, and was a constant reminder, a driver for everyone, for engineers, contractors, suppliers. They knew that only so many days were left for the project to be completed. And in project management, time is money. Each day you lose in the project, you are losing a lot of money.
When I say integrity, it is not merely honesty or lack of corruption. It includes all activities. Transparency is the main factor of this culture of integrity. Everybody who joins the organisation has to adhere to a certain set of values, commit to those values and every year these values are renewed. The fact is impressed up on the employees all the time and I think this made a lot of difference. Most importantly, I found that with this thrust on integrity, there was confidence of the two governments on the organisation. They trusted the organisation. Whatever proposal we made were approved by the government without questioning.
Delhi Metro was a complex project. Many of the technologies adopted were not known to this country at all. They had to be imported. It is a fundamental fact that if you know your job well, naturally you have all the confidence to do it well. There is always an assurance in the way you conduct yourself. If you don’t know your job, you must learn it. If you can’t learn it, engage someone who will help you to execute the job properly. This was given significant importance in the Delhi Metro project.
This is a very crucial aspect for any project management organization. If professional competence is about completing a project on time without cost over-runs, it is also a social responsibility according to me, particularly so in regard to Government projects where you spend government money. It is the people’s money, the tax-payers’ money. It has to be spent for the right cause in the right way. This is social responsibility.
Another aspect of social responsibility is completing the project with least inconvenience to the citizens. When the Delhi Metro was being done, I don’t think that the city ever knew what was happening. There was very little disturbance to city life. We used to barricade the construction area, light it up well, clean the roads. Another area was tree-cutting. There were too many permissions required. We on our own decided that we would plant ten trees for every tree cut as a compensatory effort. Social responsibility is a very important dimension of any project and implies that society should benefit from the project, and not suffer because of it.
At both the places—KRCL and DMRCL—one of the first things that Sreedharan did as the head of each organizations was to put down and circulate the Corporate Mission and Corporate Culture (mentioned in the sections on Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro), so that everybody could work towards specific goals with a similar approach.
How does this one man always succeed? What is the secret? To learn the secrets of his success, his battles at various levels and his regrets you can buy the book “India’s Railway Man” here. The book was launched by Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu at Rail Bhavan, New Delhi, in February 2017.
Get all books by Rajendra B. Aklekar here