The man who built the Delhi Metro in record time and with minimum fuss is all set to hang up his boots. The country has a lot to learn from his legendary style of management
The man who put Delhi commuters on a fast track is now busy disengaging from the world he is credited with creating. The karma yogi, who has an energetically straight bearing that belies his age, explains: “I have never worked for any recognition, money or reward. I am nearly 80 and I don’t think I have many years to live. I want to spend the remaining years of my life discovering myself.”
It took a long time for him to retire. It was after the normal retirement age that Dr E. Sreedharan took on the responsibility of turning two mega infrastructure projects – the Konkan Railways and the Delhi Metro – into a reality. The task was daunting, and having accomplished it, Sreedharan opted out to make way for younger blood. Everyone who matters tried, but failed to persuade him to stay with the organisation that he had led to an enviable success.
The construction of the Konkan Railways itself that connected Mangalore to Mumbai was an achievement anyone would have retired on. After all the line extended through 762 kms of some of the most difficult hilly terrain and valleys which saw over 2000 bridges and 91 tunnels being built. Sreedharan, who had just retired from the Indian Railways, was appointed the first Chairman and Managing Director of the Konkan Railway Corporation in 1990 and successfully completed the task in record time.
In 2005 he was then called upon to head the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) that was to build the ambitious metro to service the nation’s capital. The master plan involved building 414 kms of railway tracks through the heart of the city mostly underground and in the suburbs over-ground. Conceived in 1984 it gathered pace only when Sreedharan with his no-nonsense approach took charge and raced to complete Phase 1 and Phase II involving laying around 200 km of tracks and 201 stations again in record time and with minimum of fuss and disruption.
It is a remarkable achievement because Sreedharan does not have any formal training in management. But the manner in which this engineer has run the DMRC is a subject of study at prestigious management institutes in India and abroad. The secret of Sreedharan’s success, however, does not lie in any text book. His management style is individualistic, based on 50 years of working experience. The code of ethics he devised for the DMRC is what he also practices. He wants everyone to be totally dedicated and committed to the Mission and their personal integrity to never be in doubt. He believes in maintaining full transparency in decisions and transactions and maintaining a “we mean business” attitude. Punctuality, setting a target and sticking is the basis of his success and is never late for a meeting.
While accepting the job he made it clear that he would hand-pick his key team, lay down the work culture and be the final decision maker on all issues, even tenders. A believer of discipline in profession, sanctity of system and hierarchy, one of the first things he did as the DMRC managing director was to instil a “sense of corporate culture”. Being hands-on with the job, proper designation and division of work gave him remarkable edge, making it possible to achieve deadlines in a country known for delays.
“As a leader, he has always been in control. As a boss, he has always stood firm for his juniors. His decision-making is sharp, a clear yes or no. He never delays a decision for tomorrow or asks you to come back later. An expert at division of labour and designating them to the right people, when he selects a person for a job, he gives complete support. There are so many top-level officials here, each with individual weaknesses, but I have never seen him criticise anyone or play one against the other,” says IRTS officer Anuj Dayal, who came to the DMRC on deputation but decided to stay on.
While he believes in working hard, he is not a workaholic. Dayal says he does not believe in people staying late in the office to finish an assigned task. A stickler for punctuality, he comes to his office sharp at 8.50 am and leaves latest by 6 pm. Despite an obsession with deadlines, he doesn’t take work home. “He believes that the work can be completed if one begins on time, that when an officer is given a particular task he is made responsible to finish it, which he can do it well within the office hours,” says Dayal.
But Sreedharan also had to negotiate different power centres within the government and this he ensured by making it clear that he would not put up with any interference from anyone, be it a powerful politician or a bureaucrat. It was here that his professional confidence and personal credibility helped. Of course, later the organization’s reputation and the fact that whatever he promised he delivered helped.
Last year, when the Delhi Metro was plagued with a spate of accidents, there was tremendous pressure on him to sack some contractors and officials, but he stood his ground even when it would have been easier for him to succumb to pressure and silence the media and his detractors, who had found a good opportunity to speak against him.
He is, however, not leaving the organisation without securing its future. He has written to Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit asking her to advertise for the post, suggesting that the selection for the next DMRC chief to be done well in time for the successor to understudy with him for at least three months. Officers working with Sreedharan for the past 14 years say that the person who replaces him will have big shoes to fill.
The man, who received Padma Vibhushan in 2008, explains why he is calling it a day. He says: “At this stage it wouldn’t be right for me to take on a heavy responsibility. The next five years are going to be extremely challenging for the Delhi Metro which is already the 13th biggest metro in the world. By the year 2016 it will be the seventh largest, clearly a physically and mentally challenging task. Therefore, it is only fair that a new energetic person is given its charge. A new broom always sweeps better.”
Sreedharan was always religious, but now he is focused on pure spirituality. He wants to read, study and assimilate India’s age-old invaluable scriptures. “You can be highly spiritual even if you are not a Hindu,” he says, as he goes on to explain the significance of Adhyatmik Ramayana, lessons the scriptures convey.
Sreedharan has even decided to quit the Foundation for Restoration of National Values, an organisation he founded and headed with the aim “to bring age-old culture, values and traditions in our national stream, eliminate corruption and ensuring electoral and educational reforms”. Corruption evokes a strong reaction from him. He visited Anna Hazare when the Gandhian was fasting at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in April. But even while he totally supports the need for a strong Lokpal, he believes it should be done working with the government and within the framework of the Indian Constitution.
“It is quite clear that the existing laws and machinery have failed to contain corruption, which is why it is imperative to put in place a more stringent and effective measure. In designing any measure like Lokpal institution, everyone should foster an impartial and impersonal outlook. The guiding insight should be long-term needs and interests of the nation, not the parochial concerns to safeguard any of the present incumbents of governance. But we should get what we are asking for without upsetting the Constitutional and parliamentary procedures. My advice is, do not go against the government, work with the government and it will see the rational in due course of time. Only a few individual politicians are against the Bill,” Sreedharan says.
As Sreedharan, born in a village in Palaghat district in Kerala, gets ready to go back to his roots, his only aim is to “successfully complete his tenure by December 31, 2011.” Ignoring the voices rooting for him to stay, even proposing him as a future Indian President, he says: “I have never worked for any recognition or reward. Working for fame and money and building a fortune should not be the only aim in life.”
While he gets ready to hang up his boots, he has an advice for youngsters. “Ambition is necessary but within the practical possibilities. Ours is a vast country with huge possibilities which you can pursue. Disappointment comes when you set your mind on a particular thing. If the aim is to have good education, there are many ways to achieve that”.
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