When the first phase of the Kochi metro was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July, the audience was ecstatic. The joy of having the first metro in the country which connects rail, road and water transport system was evident, but the whistling and clapping was for the man who led this fastest metro project to completion. The man they cheered for is an engineering genius, a man who works hard and knows how to inspire others to work hard too. Metro man, as he is popularly known as, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan modernized the public transport system in India, increasing its reach and affordability. Sreedharan’s rendezvous with impressive feats dates back to 1964 when a cyclone washed away parts of Pamban Bridge that connected Rameswaram to mainland Tamil Nadu. He was put in-charge of restoring the bridge in three months, but he completed it in only 46 days. A few years later, he was assigned with the task of planning, designing and implementing the first metro project of the country. The blueprint of the Calcutta Metro was prepared by him and he as the Deputy Chief Engineer took it to completion too. He joined the Cochin Shipyard in 1979 as the chairman and managing director; and in 1981, the shipyard’s first ship, MV Rani Padmini, was launched.
The railway man retired from Indian Railways as Member Engineering, Railway Board and ex-officio Secretary to the Government of India in 1990. But he was again appointed as CMD of Konkan Railway. Within seven years, the 760-km project constructed on a build-operatetransfer (BOT ) contract was completed. Said to be one of the most difficult railway projects of the world, it has 150 bridges and 93 tunnels constructed along a length of 82-km of very soft soil. After his stint in Konkan Railways, he was made the managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) and remained in the position till December 2011, overseeing the completion of first two phases of metro construction in the country’s capital. DMRC is the first metro rail and rail-based system certified by the United Nations to get carbon credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as it has helped reduce pollution levels in the city by 6.3 lakh tonnes every year. He then took up the task of being the Principal Advisor of yet another difficult project, the Kochi Metro Rail Project, an integrated public transport system.
India’s Railway Man, as he has been referred to by his biographer Rajendra B. Aklekar, was born on June 12, 1932, in Karukaputhur, which is now in Palakkad district of Kerala. He completed his schooling from the Basel Evangelical Mission Higher Secondary School and then joined the Victoria College in Palghat from where he went on to do civil engineering from the Government Engineering College, Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, now known as JNTUK. He joined the Southern Railway as a probationary assistant engineer in 1954 after clearing the Indian Engineering Service.
Sreedharan is liked, cherished and revered by the masses. He has the craft to move the projects ahead despite political pressures, bureaucratic hurdles and internal and external criticism. He changed the perception of an average Indian that government projects are never on time. In 1974, when the Indian Railways witnessed the largest strike ever, he was busy working on the calcutta metro project and refused to stop work. Similarly, during the construction of Konkan Railway, there was fuel shortage as the first Gulf War was round the corner, but he managed to keep the ball rolling. He is admired for delivering the projects on time, within the stipulated budget and without compromising on the quality. He is a true karmayogi, who is also respected for taking moral responsibility of the task he is handed over. In 2009, when an under construction metro bridge collapsed in Delhi, he within no time announced his resignation. He was however convinced to stay back as the DMRC needed his service.
The metro man who was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2001, the Padma Vibhushan in 2008 and the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2005 by the French Government, has many jobs at hand. He is the Chief Advisor of the Lucknow Metro and envisages completing it within two years and nine months; he is an advisor for the Jaipur Metro and is guiding Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu for a proposed metro rail system in Visakhapatnam and Vijayawada.
The metro man leads a disciplined life and even at 85, the commitment, determination and energy with which he works is startling and thrilling for a common man. The Time magazine had rightly named him as one of Asia’s Heroes in 2003.