‘Metroman’, may your tribe increase

Mamuni Das | Updated on January 20, 2018

Title: Karmayogi: A Biography of E Sreedharan Author: MS Ashokan; Publisher: Penguin Portfolio. Price: ₹250

A book on E Sreedharan, an extraordinary railways engineer, manager and human being

In a day and age when all that we read about are delayed infrastructure projects and spiralling costs, it is refreshing to study a man who is known for his project implementation skills in the public infrastructure space.

Karmayogi, a biography of E Sreedharan, which is a translation of MS Ashokan’s Malayalam version by Rajesh Rajamohan, provides an insight into the man behind the legendary technocrat. A career that expanded well beyond 1990, when he retired as Member (Engineering) at the Railway Board, he set new standards in efficiency and integrity.

The author has tried to capture personality traits of the ‘Metroman’ — as Sreedharan is widely known — from various perspectives: a reputation built on his honesty, integrity and his project implementation skills.

A staunch follower of the Bhagvad Gita, Sreedharan’s basic mantra has been to be honest in one’s private and public life in such a way that ‘you don’t need to try hard to convince anybody; stand firm and not cede an inch while discharging your duties with conviction’.

This also means keeping professional skills up-to-date, holding in esteem the downtrodden in society in your plans, being morally upright and following habits that rejuvenate both body and mind.

He practices yoga and would encourage his colleagues to do so. The book is dotted with interesting anecdotes about Sreedharan’s project management skills.

Some of it was outright innovative such as rebuilding of the Pamban bridge, a 2.3 km rail bridge across the sea between Pamban and Rameshwaram, in just about one and half months! The bridge had been washed away in a cyclone in 1964.

A big success

The job involved rebuilding 126 girders that had been washed away. In a business as usual scenario, the girders would have had to be built and brought in from Gujarat and Assam, which would have taken more than six months.

But, after Sreedharan went to ground zero and interacted with locals, he learnt from the fishermen that the girders were still visible under water at a depth 40-50 metres.

So, he had all of them recovered, designed the bridge around the girders, and used the services of f Mappila Khalasis, who were known for their traditional and effective methods of hauling massive objects.

The job was completed so far ahead of time that it led to a funny incident. On the very day that the then Railway Minister replied to a query in Parliament in Delhi that it would take about a week for the bridge to be rebuilt, the All India Radio announced the trial run of a train on the bridge, with the print media celebrating it the next day.

The project implementation was widely acknowledged and Sreedharan was also awarded Rs 1,000 for the same. His daughter was born during the time, whom he did not go to meet till his task was completed.

Kolkata metro experience

The Kolkata Metro project shows how Sreedharan had to give in for lack of support from several quarters. In this project, Sreedharan was associated as deputy chief engineer-planning and design.

As the metro was a new technology for India, Railway Board got an invite for a meet on metro systems held in Japan.

Kolkata Metro’s Chief Engineer JM Roy declining an offer to go to Japan for an international conference on metro as he had only a couple of years left in service and instead recommended Sreedharan as his replacement.

In early 1970s, when nobody would let go of a chance to go abroad, Roy’s act was a pleasant surprise for Sreedharan. He stayed in Japan for four more days to see the Tokyo closely.

The Indian embassy in Tokyo was also of help and Sreedharan picked up ideas for his model designs from them, which were in Japanese. But he did use them to make a prototype.

That said, the Kolkata metro project became a victim “old bureaucratic malaise of dawdling incompetence,” the book quotes Sreedharan. There was no coordination of the railways’ undertaking with the State government. A 9 km link took 11 years to complete, with another stretch taking another 11 years.

Sreedharan says that “it was a relegation of technology of the modern world to the background and dumbing down of it to an Indian administration’s version.” He moved out of the project after four years, aware of the futility of it.

Sreedharan was also at Cochin Shipyard as its CMD. A decision taken to procure a part of the ship, Rani Padmini, from a Polish maker at much cheaper cost, against the earlier norm of procuring German components, shows his willingness to break away from the beaten path.

Konkan marvel

Then there was the Konkan Railway project, which he took up after retirement, involving multiple States. The book describes in detail how he got political support from across States for the project, managed the land acquisition and rehabilitation process, and used local bikers to create goodwill.

He hired the team for the Konkan Railways’ project by focusing on strength of character and honesty. The team had decided not to micromanage daily activities.

Employees under them too had been given powers relevant to their roles, and make them accountable for the same.

The intent was to empower employees to take decisions and avoid the culture of dependency on superiors in trivial matters, points out the book. He took progress review meetings every month, the minutes of which were not noted as he felt they were a waste of time.

Crowning glory — DMRC

His next successful project was the Delhi Metro. In all his contracts, Sreedharan ensured contractors were paid on time, he took timely decisions to make contractors perform their work. He had promised contractors that no decision would take more than 48 hours.

At times, to not delay the work, he took decisions on spot — such as building another tunnel, though the concerned official had apprehensions about the extra funds.

The leader’s backing in such instances is necessary today when many government officials are simply not willing to take decisions for fear of being hounded by vigilance.

Sreedharan, who is known for his integrity, had also pointed out the perils that vigilance bodies could have had on a construction organisation. There are certain areas where the author touches upon critics’ views, but has not elaborated on them.

Sreedharan never spent over eight hours in his office, did not take files home, and post retirement from DMRC turned down a job that offered him ₹20 lakh a month. He lived out of the pension of Indian Railways, with the DMRC salary going towards charity.

The accounts of how he has resisted politicians and officials, dispels some of the deep cynicism within us.

Metro Man, may your tribe increase.


MS Ashokan is an author and senior journalist with more than 20 years of experience. Based in Kochi, he currently works with the Deshabhimani daily.

Published on March 13, 2016

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