July 05, 2020
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E. Sreedharan, Delhi Metro

“Whenever there’s a problem, he focuses on the target—‘like Arjuna’. It doesn’t ­matter who he has to crush on the way, even politicians,” says his biographer Rajendra B. Aklekar.

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E. Sreedharan, Delhi Metro
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
E. Sreedharan, Delhi Metro
  • DMRC runs the world’s 12th largest metro network


Every once in a while, messianic style, there rises a man from the catacombs of babucracy who dispels the gloom, shakes the dust off the files in the grey almirahs, and sets off to work so brimming with purpose that we realise things can actually get done in India. The contrast with the ambient sloth is so stark and the effect on the dispirited public so electrifying that the man starts believing in his halo. Seshan, Khairnar, Kejriwal…it’s a small but illuminating list. E. Sreedharan would have been there too—except that eul­ogies sit lightly on him and even now, at 84, he would rather simply set off to work.

It’s been like that for six straight decades. From restoring the 2.3 km Pamban bridge to Rameshwaram in a record 46 days after the 1964 cyclone, to the Kochi Metro, about to go live this summer after some prolonged signal trouble, there has been no time to stand and stare at the beauty of his own handiwork. And a lot of it truly has a folkloric quality. The technically challenging Konkan route, for instance, ribboning through the Western Ghats, the only real addition to our rail network after the British left. Delhi was to see the legend up close with the Metro, and was incredulous—precise logistics, planning that acco­unted for the citizen’s needs, a world-class system delivered on time. Why, it won Sheila Dikshit a few elections!

Sreedharan had learnt things the hard way as deputy chief engineer with India’s first metro in Calcutta, which was 22 years in the making and saw a 14-fold cost overrun, fatal accidents and building collapses after underground digging. The memory bred scepticism when the Delhi Metro was proposed, but Sreedharan motivated his team at DMRC to strive for total mastery. It changed the story of urban transport in India. Politicians too learnt it was best to give him full operational freedom: his famed willingness to resign anyday, paradoxically, kept him on the job!

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