Indian politicians never tire of proclaiming that their country’s population is among the youngest in the world: Every third person, they note, is aged 30 or less.
What they don’t often acknowledge is that one of the biggest heroes in this nation of young people—the person who is doing more than most to put taxpayers’ money to work for the benefit of citizens—is a railway engineer who turns 76 next week.
Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, popularly known as India’s “Metro Man,” is the managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corp. Ltd, which operates the newly built world-class city railway network that’s transforming the economy of India’s capital. It’s also improving the city’s air quality, altering its social life and even influencing norms of individual behaviour.
Funded by government equity and debt, and a soft loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, a $2.3 billion, 65km section of the project was completed in 2005, three years ahead of schedule.
Not just that: The stations are clean and spacious; littering is almost non-existent; people wait their turn at the metal detectors; the trains are comfortably air-conditioned even during peak office hours; the waiting time is short; and trains are punctual 99.9% of the time.
Delhi Metro has been such a hit that real estate values have already risen along the planned routes for the second phase of the project, in which an additional 121km of tracks are being laid at a cost of $4.3 billion.
By 2011, three million commuters are expected to ride the metro every day. By 2020, it will be bigger than the existing London underground network.
India’s Institute of Economic Growth estimates that investment in the project has a rate of return—including the benefits from reduced air pollution—of 24%, an extremely gratifying utilization of taxpayers’ money.
Sreedharan’s achievement has made other cities from Lahore to London sit up and take note. The BusinessWeek magazine called Sreedharan India’s “uncommon bureaucrat”. Sreedharan smiles at that description but he doesn’t agree with it. “I’m a technocrat, not a bureaucrat,” he said in an interview in his New Delhi office on Wednesday.
“In very complicated projects, you can’t put a generalist at the top,” he said. “The most competent person has to be found, empowered and trusted.”
Sreedharan says he doesn’t wait for approvals. “You must have the courage, competence and conviction to do the right thing,” he says, adding that he was a “little disappointed” at the slow pace at which other Indian cities have handled their city rail projects.
One example is the proposed metro in the southern city of Hyderabad. It is delayed because the Planning Commission—a relic of India’s socialist past that ought to have been shut down long ago—wanted to vet the concession agreement. “The delay doesn’t pinch the Planning Commission,” he said. “It pinches the public.”
At business schools, Delhi Metro is already a case study. The reason that analysts give for its outstanding success is the rare degree of freedom the government gave Sreedharan.
Not only is the project more expensive than most of India’s defence purchases, it also creates jobs and rents out land and advertising space to businesses. For politicians to let something this valuable slip out of their control is rare in India.
One theory is that the government was desperate for results; New Delhi and its surrounding areas had a population of 16 million in 2006 and more than five million motorized vehicles on the roads last year; without a metro, the city, which will host the Commonwealth Games in 2010, would have choked to death.
Journalists have other explanations for what makes Sreedharan tick. Some say it’s the respect for age in Indian culture. Others will tell you about his stamina, the yoga he does every morning after waking up at 4.30am; that, and the vegetarian diet.
In reality, Sreedharan’s biggest strength is the rapport he has with the public. At construction sites, his wardens manage the traffic (and anecdotal evidence says they do a better job than regular traffic policemen).
When the service became operational, Sreedharan got volunteers to help people become familiar with escalators, which provided a novel experience for many of his customers and, at least initially, not a very pleasant one.
There have been hundreds of lawsuits against Delhi Metro, mostly about land acquisition. In view of the overwhelming public interest in the project, courts have been wary to issue stay orders.
There’s so much of Sreedharan in the success of Delhi Metro that one wonders if India will be able to replicate it elsewhere, especially in projects run by the government, which doesn’t attract top talent anymore.
Letting the private sector take the lead seems to be the only realistic option for India to ease its acute shortage of infrastructure—roads, ports and power stations—even though it may ultimately be a costlier option for the taxpayer and the consumer. If only India had 100 more public servants of the calibre of its Metro Man.
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