India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E Sreedharan by Rajendra B Aklekar; book review

By: | Updated: April 9, 2017 2:51 AM

RED TAPE, BUDGET uncertainties and lack of political will. If one had to choose the top contenders from a long list of problems that plague government infrastructure projects in India, these three would undoubtedly make the cut.

From Kerala originally, Sreedharan fell in love with trains during his high-school days in Quilandy, Kozhikode—he had to cross the railway line everyday to reach school.

RED TAPE, BUDGET uncertainties and lack of political will. If one had to choose the top contenders from a long list of problems that plague government infrastructure projects in India, these three would undoubtedly make the cut. Fortunately, these issues never seemed to bother Elattuvalapil Sreedharan. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the Delhi Metro or even the Konkan Railways.

As the chairman and managing director of the Konkan Railway Corporation and managing director of Delhi Metro, Sreedharan spearheaded perhaps two of the most important railway projects that have changed the way Indians travel. Many more of Sreedharan’s success stories—with a fair share of setbacks and controversies—are highlighted in Rajendra B Aklekar’s India’s Railway Man: A Biography of E Sreedharan.

From Kerala originally, Sreedharan fell in love with trains during his high-school days in Quilandy, Kozhikode—he had to cross the railway line everyday to reach school. Every now and then, Aklekar writes, the young Sreedharan would get to touch the “mighty steaming iron giants.” After finishing school, Sreedharan went on to study civil engineering in Andhra Pradesh and his first job took him to Mumbai Port Trust in 1953.

But it’s the Konkan Railways and Delhi Metro for which Sreedharan is admired by many. As Aklekar mentions, the 760-km stretch of the Konkan Railways was completed by Sreedharan and his team in a remarkable seven years. More importantly, once finished in 1997-98, it brought down the distance between Mumbai and Mangalore by 1,127 km, saving 26 hours of travel time.

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The Delhi Metro, which carries more than two million passengers daily, was completed in the same time frame—work started in 1995 and it became operational in 2002. Both these projects, the author writes, bring out prominent features of Sreedharan’s working philosophy. Apart from the knack of proposing practical ideas, Sreedharan insisted that he be given a free hand both in execution, as well as in hiring people of his choice.

In a chapter about the Kolkata Metro, technically India’s first Metro system, Aklekar writes how Sreedharan went out of his way to create the best possible conditions for the project. Sreedharan attended an international tunnelling seminar in Japan in the Seventies to get a better understanding of the Tokyo Metro line, which would, in turn, be of help for the Kolkata Metro project back home. In order to meet more engineers and operators, he had to extend his stay in Tokyo, but ran out of funds. With no help from the Indian Railways, Sreedharan borrowed $300 from a nephew in the US to stay a few extra days in Japan. Consequently, he met some senior engineers and even managed to get hold of some engineering drawings of the Tokyo Metro. These drawings proved to be valuable assets for the Kolkata Metro project.

Over the years, Sreedharan has maintained a formidable record of completing projects within a stipulated deadline. The restoration of Pamban Bridge, which connects the town of Rameswaram on Pamban Island to mainland India, in just 46 days is another instance. The decades-old bridge was left in tatters after it felt the full force of a cyclone in 1964. Sreedharan was given three months to complete the restoration work in 1965. He enlisted the help of local fishermen and came up with makeshift ideas like a ‘pontoon crane’ to finish the rebuilding work on the bridge.

Aklekar concludes with an account of how 84-year-old Sreedharan, a grandfather of nine, spends a normal day today. The railway man’s day begins at four in the morning with a mix of meditation and yoga. A staunch believer of the Bhagavad Gita, Sreedharan still spends some time working from his camp office in Ponnani, Kerala. By 9.20 pm, he is in bed.

Meeting deadlines and being punctual, it seems, come naturally to India’s railway man.

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