‘The metro is a social responsibility’: E Sreedharan

Shriya Mohan | Updated on May 01, 2020

Top of the world DMRC chief E Sreedharan (front) travels in the newly extended Line 3 up to Indraprastha Station in this 2006. IMAGE: RV MOORTHY   -  rv moorthy

On the silver jubilee of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, former chief E Sreedharan looks at its incredible journey — and the way ahead for commutes in an era of social distancing

* The DMRC, which operates the Delhi metro, completes 25 years

* Former DMRC Chief, E Sreedharan, looks back at the journey and what’s changed about metro operations today

It was on May 3, 1995, that the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) was set up. In 1997, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan was appointed its managing director, and the metro’s first phase of 65km was completed in 2006. Today it spans 389km and 285 stations. The metro has changed lives in and around Delhi, connected people across far-flung areas efficiently, and made travel safer, especially for women, encouraging many of them to confidently step out beyond the walled city. In a telephonic conversation with BLink, from his home in Ponnani in Malappuram district, Kerala, the ‘Metro Man’ recounts some of the high points of this journey, and looks at the way forward for commuters in a post-Covid-19 world. Edited excerpts:

What were some of your priorities when you joined the DMRC in 1997?

I wanted to make this a world-class metro. We already had a forerunner, the Kolkata metro, which wasn’t up to the standard either in speed or comfort. We wanted to bring in the latest technology. And we wanted the metro to be delivered well before time. The project report gave us 10 years’ time but we wanted to give it in seven years. We didn’t want any cost overruns. And we wanted to execute the project with the least inconvenience to the public.

Please share some anecdotes from your DMRC years.

I still remember the day I joined the DMRC on November 4, 1997. That was a memorable day. The first unpleasant experience I had after taking over was in regard to the appointment of consultants to the project. I finalised on a Japanese-led consortium and issued a letter of acceptance to them. That annoyed the then urban development minister Ram Jethmalani. The minister, who wanted the contract to be awarded to a German company, asked how I could finalise the contract without his approval. I had to tell him that there was no need for his permission. I had the powers vested in me by the board of directors to finalise such matters. He asked me to cancel the contract. I refused.

A minister cannot influence a board. At an early stage itself, I had got a resolution passed by the board giving me full decision-making powers in many matters. It was one of my preconditions for joining. Ultimately, Mr Jethmalani backed out, knowing he could not interfere.

The DMRC went through two fare hikes in recent years, which hit ridership...

I was against that increase in fare. In fact when they decided to increase the fare, the [state] minister and secretary came to Kochi to consult me. They wanted me to issue a press statement that I was coming out fully in support of it, to which I refused.

I said this is not correct. I said metro is not for profit-making, it is a social responsibility. We should be able to render a service to the common man.

In India, it is a struggle to get the middle and upper-middle classes to abandon their cars. Can the metro ever become a class equaliser?

Certainly it can. The Delhi metro is rather overcrowded. That is one reason why people don’t want to abandon their cars. The metro also does not provide door-to-door feeder buses. If you are able to offer a comfortable service and arrange for door-to-door conveyance, people will come. One way of reducing congestion in the DMRC is by increasing the number of trains and speeding up the existing trains. It means more power consumption. We should bear the additional energy charges and increase acceleration. Today the average speed is only 28-29 kmph, including station stoppages. It can safely be raised to 33-34 kmph.

In our country, all said and done, fuel is very cheap and parking isn’t a problem. Congestion on the road isn’t so heavy. You should make cars expensive and difficult to own and maintain, as it is in countries such as Singapore. Then people will have no choice but to ride the metro.

Why has the metro not been as much of a success in cities such as Bengaluru or Chennai?

I was always of the view that the metro should be headed by a technocrat who knows the subject well and can take quick decisions, not a generalist.

If you’re posting an IAS officer he should be posted there for good, so that accountability is fixed. Also work culture is important. The whole success of DMRC is because of the unique work culture where maximum importance is given to punctuality, integrity, professional competence and a commitment to serve the society.

Today’s atmosphere lacks the culture of independent decision making. Being from the state government service, the loyalty of present employees (helming regional metro operations) is only to the chief minister and political party ruling the state, not to the organisation. I don’t think these people would have stood up to a minister as I did.

How should the metro respond to a post-Covid-19 world in an era of social distancing?

The lockdown period has been a great setback to all metros because the infrastructure and people have been idling in the absence of any revenue. The metro should resume functioning after lockdown.

India should be able to wipe out the last trace of Covid-19 in three months. The government is taking good measures. The Aarogya Setu app [which tracks the infection and lets a user know about infected people in the vicinity] will help because commuters will be protected. These precautions are required. The loss of privacy [a criticism levelled against the app] isn’t a great public sacrifice. It’s not privacy that’s important at the moment; it is safety to life that is more important.

At 87, you’re still in charge of many projects. Are you too busy to enjoy retirement?

(Laughs) Yes, I’m still very busy. Not just with the metro but also many other commitments I have made. I’m not really required in metro projects anymore.

I’m involved today, for example, with Srinagar Dal Lake rejuvenation; I’m the country president of the Foundation for Restoration of National Values, which seeks to instil good values and ethics among citizens, particularly schoolchildren; I am the president of a society that’s working to restore the Bharathappuzha River to its old glory; and I’m involved with reviving Ashtapadiyattam, a 12th-century dance-drama.

I complete 88 years on June 12. From July 1, I’ve decided that I will start withdrawing from hectic programmes gradually and enjoy retirement more.

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Published on May 01, 2020
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