Happy Birthday ‘Metro Man’ Dr E Sreedharan! The Man I Know
On his birthday, Dr E Sreedharan’s colleague Shashikant Limaye recounts the person, boss and colleague he was.
(This story was first published on 12 June 2015 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark E Sreedharan’s birthday.)
I met Dr E Sreedharan for the very first time in 1984 at Chennai where as Chief Engineer (Construction), he was in charge of a large number of the Indian Railway’s construction projects in the southern region. As a Professor of Indian Railways premier training Institute, I was conducting a study tour of a group of senior engineers from Indian Railways to these construction projects.
When I entered his modest office chamber I vividly remember him getting up from the chair and warmly shaking my hands. Despite his busy schedule, he then spent almost an hour with me and the trainee officers explaining some of the unique innovations in the bridge projects at Karoor and Aroor (Kochi). He always believed in imparting the best possible training to young engineers.
Today, he is popularly known as the Metro Man of India, after a professional career that has spanned over 60 years. Belonging to the Indian Railway Service of Engineers, Sreedharan rose to the highest position in Indian Railways, that of Member Engineering (and ex officio Secretary to the Government of India) of the Railway Board in1989.
The Modest Metro Man
He had an illustrious career, and railwaymen looked up to him as an achiever and upright officer. He is well known for the successful implementation of two prestigious infrastructure projects — the Konkan Railway (1990-97), and the DelhiMetro (1998-2013). It is simply astonishing that he led these two projects from their commencement to completion, even after his formal retirement from government service in 1990 at the age of 58.
To write about Dr Sreedharan on the occasion of his birthday takes me down memory lane, a period comprising more than three decades. When I started penning down my impressions of this technocrat, with whom I had the good luck of closely working for eight years (the Konkan Railway Project), it dawned upon me that it is simply an uphill task.
The Hard Taskmaster
Carrying out investigations of the Konkan Railway alignment with him through the rugged Konkan terrain spread over 740 km along trekking paths, roads and on boats, and even narrow canoes, was not only an unforgettable experience in itself, but also a valuable training ground.
On many days, work timings extended from 8 am to 11pm. I still remember our travel in a narrow canoe across the Sharavathi River from Honavar to Mavin Kurve Island. Before leaving the shores he affectionately enquired about our swimming prowess. This journey through the river was to fix the alignment of the longest bridge along Konkan railway – the Sharavathi Bridge at Honavar is 2 km in length.
His astonishing clarity on the various components which are required to be put in place to implement large infrastructure projects, was something to be cultivated. When the Design & Planning Office of the Konkan Railway Project was inaugurated by him, he said, “This is the nerve centre of the Project and our success will entirely depend on its performance.”
The Technocrat and his Team
In retrospect, he could have not spoken more succinctly. He understood that adequate and accurate planning, and timely availability of designs are the key issues in any project. Alas, most of our mega projects today lag behind due to failure on these counts.
Sreedharan always handpicked his top team of officers who were essentially trustworthy, with unquestionable integrity and a good track record of performance. He followed this up by adequate delegation of authority. He made everyone aware that decisions are always fraught with certain chances of failures/mistakes, and that should not deter one from taking them. In case of any exigency, he believed in finding a quick and effective solution, rather than pondering endlessly over whose fault it was.
Having said that, Sreedharan was a hard task master and did not deal lightly with proven and intentional irregularities.
A combination of effective management, and ensuring quality work contributed towards Sreedharan’s success. His munificence in allowing even the most junior engineer at a work site to participate in any technical discussions, and welcoming suggestions from the same was a mark of a true leader.
The Encouraging Boss
I remember an occasion when he received a prestigious award from the Institution of Engineers at Pune in 1996. While walking out from the venue, he enquired about my parents who were present in the audience and made it a point to walk upto them and telling them “your son is one of our gems”. I still consider that gesture to be the greatest award I could ever receive.
A countdown clock was installed at every office of the Konkan Railway Project, and later in the Delhi Metro – a pathbreaking concept which reveals the primary importance he always attached to timely completion of every project. I do not remember Dr Sreedharan being late for any meeting.
Patience and perseverance are two qualities which go to make success stories and when it comes to Dr Sreedharan, there is no dearth of these. Throughout my association with him, I have hardly ever seen him losing his temper. Always calm and quiet, he rarely had pending files on his table.
A famous richa (hymn) from the Rigveda which translates as “Let noble thoughts come to us from all the sides”, which was displayed in his office chamber at the Konkan Railway, sums up his philosophy and work ethics succinctly.
All of us, his disciples, wish him a long life on his birthday today!
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