With a population of twelve million people, Delhi is, by any standards, a crowded city – one, that till about three years ago, lacked a decent public transport system. For those who didn’t own a car or a two-wheeler, the overcrowded buses were really the only option. Either that, or the other alternative was, what Delhites call, autos (short for autorickshaws) – noisy little three-wheelers, open from all sides except the roof, used, mainly, to travel short distances – not a making for a happy ride and not being particularly cheap either.
But all that was before someone called Mr. E. Sreedharan took upon the daunting and unenviable task of giving Delhi a world-class subway system. It’s commonly seen as a technological marvel and is drawing praise from all quarters of the world. Last December, students from Wharton, Harvard and Stanford business schools visited the Delhi Metro to understand how an incredible subway system like this could have been constructed in such trying conditions, mainly those of overpopulation in a city like Delhi.
Some remarkable facts: Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) began construction on October 1, 1998 and in only four years, completed one section, which opened to the public in December 2002. In December 2005, the first phase of the project was completed, almost three years ahead of schedule, and well within the budget – extremely commendable in a country like India where public works are mostly mismanaged and shoddily run. The effects can be seen and measured: Approximately 500,000 people ride the metro daily. The city’s roads are less congested and pollution levels have come down substantially. It uses extremely sophisticated safety norms and control and power systems; passengers are provided with parking facilities at the stations which are cool and spotlessly clean; every subway car has a LCD display and route-maps and the tickets are computer chip “smart” cards that are read by automatic sensors.
Delhi roads, which have more cars than Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai – three major Indian cities – put together can be a nightmare, especially in peak hours. The Metro has, thus, been a boon, not only decongesting the traffic, but also bringing down vehicular pollution levels substantially. By 2010, when the second phase of the construction is over and many more parts of the city are connected, the scenario will be much better.
The credit for this goes to Sreedharan, the managing director of DMRC. In a county where government corruption, bureaucracy and delays are considered business as usual, Sreedharan, a quiet man in his seventies, is known for strict deadlines and straight talk. He has managed to maintain autonomy while running the project, something that was a pre-condition of him taking up the task. He’s also been shrewd about financing the metro’s construction.
He realized that funding would be a major issue for such a project, and not wanting to delay the project due to lack of money, Sreedharan went abroad, to Japan, and got loans for a large part of the cost. He also looked abroad for technical advice, using the expertise as well as the equipment of experienced companies like Rotem of Korea and Mitsubishi of Japan, and combining it with Indian skills and companies.
Sreedharan has received numerous accolades for his exceptional achievement, both in India and abroad. In 2001 the Indian government awarded him the Padam Shri – an award given to Indians who have made outstanding contributions in various fields, such as the arts, literature, science, sports, industry, education etc. Time magazine named him Asian Hero in 2003 and in 2005 he was awarded the Legion of Honor by France – the country’s most prestigious of civilian awards – for his work on the Delhi Metro. Last year the American publication, Engineering News-Record (ENR), named him among the “top 25 newsmakers of 2005″.
Now if India can only clone him. One Sreedharan in every one of the country’s municipal public works departments would make its infrastructure woes a thing of the past.