Anshul Vipat

E. Sreedharan: A Level Five Leader

Anshul Vipat

E Sreedharan_DMRC

Image Source: Indian Express

It was a warm evening in the month of June and the year was 1990 when Elattuvalapil Sreedharan was all set to retire as a member of the Railway Board. In his last day at office, he packed his belongings and left, but, not to retire. He had a flight to catch. He was going to Mumbai. A month after his 60th birthday, on July 19, 1990, he was appointed chief managing director (CMD) of Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd (KRCL) to build railway infrastructure covering 750 km over four states. And in less than seven years, trains started chugging in once invincible territory.
A recipient of Padma Vibhushan in 2008, Sreedharan was not new to such challenges. Serving for the railways since 36 years, he was well known for bringing about such transformations which sustained themselves even after his exit from the fore. He had gone to Konkan with a great track record in Rameshwaram. And in the coming years he was to put in place India’s largest metro network in Delhi in a spectacular fashion.
To me, his success roots in a paradoxical mix of fierce will and compelling humility. He understood the immensity of challenges at hand and yet he believed his team could triumph over them. He hired the best lot of men and maintained a culture of discipline. He brought in technology judiciously and allowed momentum to be built.

The Konkan Railway Project

The Konkan Railways Project was perceived to be independent India’s toughest project.  A project that a pre-independence British Raj survey had found impossible to complete. It involved burrowing 92 tunnels through basalt mountains, building 2000 bridges on overflowing Konkan rivers, and dealing with 42,000 landowners to acquire 4,850 hectares of land.

konkan railway

Setting Up an Empowered and Accountable Team
He started by creating a small but highly functional top management team. A selection of best men was a priority for Sreedharan and he himself took charge of it. Beyond educational qualifications and experience, each candidate’s conduct in his or her official capacity was reviewed. Strength of character, integrity and honesty were valued. And once the team was in place, Sreedharan’s message for them was to do their work without expecting any return out of it. He asked them to practice Asangathu Vaa and in his own life demonstrated it – starting his day at 4:00 am and working hard without any frills.
Now, even though he had a good top team in place, micromanaging daily activities at lower levels was a very difficult and yet futile task. Sreedharan believed in empowering individuals and making them accountable for their own work. So, he went about setting up an apparatus of transformation where individuals would be empowered and accountable. Seven districts in four states, through which the Konkan railway was to pass, were divided into seven zones. Each zone had a chief engineer to oversee the project’s progress, a revenue officer to oversee the finances and a police superintendent to manage law and order. Having a revenue officer was unprecedented but it solved the problem of lack of coordination with the department of finance, which in most cases was located away from the site. The role of these revenue officers was to advise the chief engineer of the zone and they functioned as a part of the zonal team, not the approvers of finances sitting at the headquarters. Work started simultaneously in all the zones and any issues that arose were taken care of locally. This saved them lot of delays, area characteristic feature of most infrastructure projects in India.
Every Monday, in Sreedharan’s presence all zonal chief engineers met to review the project’s progress. The accountability was set to the group, not to Sreedharan alone. Each zonal chief engineer would brief the group of his zone’s last week’s progress and shortfalls and set an agenda for the next week. Interestingly, no minutes of the meetings used to be recorded. It was a sheer waste of time according to Sreedharan.
Such was the level of efficiency that the project was completed with only 2,400 people. Later during an interview he gave to Rediff, he explained his success by saying, “I have been lucky enough to pick up the right people for the right job.”
Building Sustained Momentum
Once a functional organisational structure was put in place, the Konkan railway project saw Sreedharan bringing in a mix of innovative and traditional solutions to build a sustainable momentum. It began with the finances. While a total of Rs 800 crore was pooled together by railways and the four beneficiary states, an additional Rs 2,250 crore was raised through public bonds, which had attractive rates of return. This gave the project a great degree of self-sufficiency. Then the symbols of power that affected efficiency were done away with. Normally to set up right alignment for the tracks, the officers and engineers were sent to map the areas in jeeps. Now jeeps could not ply through all terrains and the maps often failed the accuracy test. As a solution, the jeep culture was done away with and even the senior-most officers were asked to map their areas on bikes with a daily allowance of Rs 100 for petrol. The maps were accurate and the length of the railway line that was needed to be built was brought down to 750 km from the initial estimates of 830 km. Millions of rupees and months of effort were saved only because Sreedharan did not shy away from taking the jeeps away from his officers.
Another big problem was that of the land acquisition. Lawsuits and court cases often take years to conclude. Sreedharan’s approach to deal with them was humane and not governmental. Mass meetings were held in villages and towns, where ‘what is in it for you’ was explained. They were reassured, sometimes personally, by Sreedharan that their way of life and the environment will not be harmed. A fair price was provided to every household. Prices for farmlands and orchards were decided through negotiations and government-prescribed rates were not enforced on the farmers. Cheques were handed over to them by top KRCL officers personally. They were also helped by KRCL employees with transportation and rehabilitation. Sometimes, KRCL itself acted as packers and movers for the farmers! That is why many people gave up their property voluntarily. The entire land acquisition process was completed within a year.
To enable quicker construction, Sreedharan also adopted use of advanced technology. Nine hydraulic tunneling machines were brought from Sweden and the technique of incremental launching of bridge spans was used for the first time in India.
All the efforts and hardships faced by Sreedharan and his team finally bore fruit on January 26, 1998 when the route was thrown open for public reducing the travel time between Mumbai and Mangalore from 36 hours to just 20 hours.

Connecting Rameshwaram

In 1964, a cyclone devastated Rameshwaram. The impact was so tremendous that a small town just south of Rameshwaram, Dhanushkodi, was swallowed by the Indian Ocean. Such was the fury of the cyclone that the Government of Madras declared the town unfit for living and the once budding tourist town was converted into ghost town. The railways also had to bear the brunt of it. On the night of December 22, 1964, Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger train, which was about to reach Dhanushkodi station, got washed away by tidal waves. Two hundred passengers travelling in its six coaches drowned. Pamban Bridge, a 2.3 km long and then, the only sea-bridge in India, connecting Rameshwaram to mainland India was completely destroyed. 126 girders out of the total 146 of the Pamban Bridge collapsed.

The Indian Railways decided to rebuild the bridge. The initial deadline was fixed at six months. Sreedharan, then deputy engineer of Southern Railways, was put in charge. He had to convert a piece of wreck into a bridge. This was his first assignment. Some girders were salvaged from the sea and some emergency girders were brought from Assam. His team also installed a device called ‘Anemometer’ which is used to measure wind speed. When the speed of the wind crosses 55 kmph, the bridge sends a warning message to oncoming trains so that history does not repeat itself.  Sreedharan took just a month and 15 days to restore that bridge back to full operation.

Making of the Delhi Metro

In December 1997, Sreedharan was made managing director (MD) of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) at the insistence of the then chief minister of Delhi, Sahib Singh Verma and with a personal order from then prime minister of India, HD Deve Gowda.

Delhi Metro

In engineering circles, it was often said that building a metro is the most difficult task because it is to be built under and over a metropolis. The sorry tale of Kolkata metro project taking 16 long years to complete served as a reminder of how difficult the task was. Government’s ambitious plan of setting up a metro network in Delhi earned many more skeptics than backers. But Sreedharan was a man who believed it could be done.
Building a Culture of Discipline
Sreedharan did not reinvent the wheel but focused on what he did best – creating empowered teams and allowing them to thrive in a culture of discipline. He began with getting the right set of people on board and hired only those he necessarily needed. No wonder DMRC had employed only 45 people for every km of work, three times less than the numbers Kolkata metro project had employed. The contractors were also selected with good care. A list of their potential contractors was prepared and tender invites were sent to only those who would measure up in competence and integrity.
A sense of discipline was created first through his own example. While a young man would struggle to wake up early in the morning, Sreedharan used to wake up at  4 am. He used to reach his office at 8:30 sharp, 30 minutes before the office timings. At the same time, he made a point to leave by 5:30 – 6 pm. He did not work till late hours. He did not take his work home with him. At the same time, he encouraged his people to do the same. He used to personally visit the site for inspections, talk to the men firsthand, brief them about the vision they were helping to achieve, and with his conduct inspired them to observe highest standards of performance.
While he always shied away from accepting the accolades for the great work done, he took moral responsibility for the collapsing of a metro bridge, which killed six people, and resigned. His resignation was not accepted, but his moral authority increased manifolds.
“Motivate them on what is our mission and how it is to be achieved. And in all these things set a personal example,” was the motto of Sreedharan.
Overcoming Challenges with True Grit
The problem of funding for Delhi metro project was grave. Sreedharan pursued the Japanese to invest in Delhi metro, but they were not too keen on it. Not a man of many words, he decided to convince them with his actions. That is when a great gamble was taken up and Sreedharan set out to build the initial 8.3 km of metro line from Shahdara to Tees Hazari, which included a 500 m long bridge on Yamuna River within just four years. It was estimated that construction of Yamuna Bridge alone would take two years! And it was achieved at a very little cost, which was reduced sizably by using incremental launching technique. The first section was thrown open for traffic on December 24, 2002, right on schedule. The Japanese were impressed and they invested in the Delhi metro project offering a very low interest rate. With this, over 60% of the necessary finance was secured.
The second big challenge came when the government wanted him to take  German consultants on board, who apparently had lobbied really hard and influenced the right set of people. But, Sreedharan wanted to go to with the Japanese consultants, who he believed were a better fit in his context. This led to friction between him and the government. What happened next surprised the government. Normally a man with quiet demeanor, Sreedharan took a rather strong stance and flatly refused to entertain any political influence in his work. In an interview, he recalled, “I refused to give in without even giving an explanation.” The tenders were cleared in 19 days, a rare thing at that time. “I am not popular with politicians; they tolerate me because I produce results,” Sreedharan used to say.
Ensuring Timeliness
In all the projects he had undertaken, Sreedharan ensured a timely completion. He was good at avoiding delays and that is what he focused on at DMRC. A digital clock was placed in his office, all other DMRC offices, and the construction sites. Sreedharan called it the reverse clock and it used to show how far they were from their project deadline and it worked as a constant reminder for everyone.
Operationally, the first challenge to a timely completion of project was faced while connecting two busiest areas of Delhi, Rajiv Chowk and Chandni Chowk. Here, the line was mostly laid underground. A big hurdle came near Chawri bazaar. The land was highly unpredictable and tunnel would collapse immediately after building. Also, the tunnel was surrounded by water which was a cause of serious concern. A delay of single day was to cost DMRC Rs 1.3 crore and this problem was threatening to cause a significant delay. Sreedharan found the solution to it in technology. For the first time in India, New Austrian Tunneling Method (NATM) was used and the tunnel was sequentially excavated and supported. Thus, world’s second deepest metro station, Chawri Bazaar came into being, 30 m below the ground level.
The problem of land acquisition had a different dimension here, but Sreedharan did not allow it to delay the project one bit. In 2009, when work on the Delhi-Gurgoan line was in progress, a group of farmers from Chattarpur village opposed the project and took the matter to the court. Court ordered a stay on the work. Realising that such legal disputes will delay the project, Sreedharan and his team came up with a creative solution. They could not build the station at Chattarpur, so they built the scaffolding offsite using pre-fabricated steel in just nine months. Soon, DMRC won the case and its officials moved the steel boxes to Chattarpur, assembled them, and erected the station, thus saving valuable time.
The first phase of the Delhi Metro was completed in 2006, three years ahead of the schedule and without exceeding the allotted budget. To sum up his attitude towards the miracles he brought about, a sign behind his desk read ‘Whatever has to be done, I do, but in reality I did not do anything’.


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