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Just A Minute With: Delhi Metro's E. Sreedharan

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Just ten days before the bridge collapse that almost forced the Delhi Metro chief to step down, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan told Reuters that India needs sweeping changes on how it implements infrastructure projects.

Delhi Metro Rail Corporation managing director Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, 77, speaks during an interview with Reuters in New Delhi July 2, 2009. REUTERS/Vijay Mathur/Files

Here are excerpts from the exclusive interview -

Q: To what do you attribute the success of the Delhi metro?

A: “For us, time is money. We know that each day is so important and we can’t allow one day to waste.”

Q: How did you cut through the red tape?

A: “At the government level, there will be a lot of bickering and bargaining necessary, but ultimately we are able to get what we want.”

“The traffic scenario is very dismal and something has got to be done very fast. Everybody realised that. So irrespective of the political parties in power, generally we found that everybody was very keen to get the project completed on time.”

“If there is a political commitment, we can carry bureaucracy very easily with us.”

“All the works which the civic authorities are required to do, we did it ourselves without waiting for them.”

“If a huge water pipeline is to be shifted, they would take two years for that. Whereas we were able to get it done in 30 days.”

Q: Is this a model India could follow?

A: “This model will not be valid for certain other areas.”

“Most of the things come entirely under the central government’s purview. Then this model will not work. If the project is coming entirely under the state government’s purview, then this model will not work.

“This model has worked because neither the state government nor the central government were unnecessarily meddling into the scheme. They were not allowed to meddle.”

“Unfortunately what is happening is that everybody wants to control things. Nobody wants to take responsibility. There is no accountability then.”

“People should be prepared to take decisions and not pass on the buck.”

“We should be able to trust people in power, which means people in power should have a proven integrity.”

Q: Which other projects would you have liked to take on?

A: “The metro projects themselves are a great challenge. There are a lot of things to be done in this country. In fact I would still like to continue as my mission to spread this metro culture to all the cities, and see that the cities get the metros fast. Our track record in this matter is not at all good.”

“If you see a country like China, 18 cities are having metros under construction. And the pace at which they are moving! This is not happening in this country. With great difficulty, metro work has been started in four other cities...after how many years of struggle?”

“Even in Delhi...we have still not finalised our phase 3. The government has not that vision, and that decision ... that emphasis that phase 3 should be already in position, work should start on time.”

“This is lacking in our country. Whereas China, for the next 15 years they have worked out a plan for every city.”

Q: Is India’s democracy in that way a curse as well as a blessing?

A: “Yes, yes, yes. That’s right. But even in many democratically functioning countries they plan these things much better.”

Q: What work ethic have you instilled in your employees?

A: “I have not followed any textbook theory in this organisation. We have gone for common sense, down-to-earth type of management schemes. We have basically instilled good values among the officers and the staff.”

“Motivate them on what is our mission and how it is to be achieved. Motivate them. And in all these things set a personal example.

“If you set a personal example, others will not only be tempted, they will be encouraged to follow it.”

Q: Can you give examples?

A: “That is the way I work, the way I take decisions, the number of hours I utilise. And I have no other distraction except my work.”

“The only distraction is perhaps, in the last few years, some distraction towards spirituality, otherwise no distraction at all. Concentrate on the work, dedication, commitment.”

Q: Could you sketch out your working day?

A: “It is very relaxed type of working day. I come to the office between 8:30-8:45 in the office. I also leave the office by 5:30 and 5:45.”

“Within the office there are very regular schedules laid down. What are the meetings that should take place, whom I should meet. These are all very rigidly they are done. And now these things, punctuality is very important. I give lot of importance to punctuality and on Saturdays I keep aside for site visits. So that what are the problems on the sites, what help they need from me. The site visits are not for fact-finding, for witch-hunting. Site visits are mainly to solve the problems on the site and to motivate the people.

“That makes lot of difference, you see, people should not be afraid of my visits, my inspections. They should welcome my inspections.”

“Of course morning I spent quite enough time on spirituality. One hour, meditation, pranayam.”

Q: Do you meditate for one hour?

A: “No, no it is only for fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, then I read spiritual books, like the Srimad Bhagvadam I read, at least for half an hour. Meditation, then pranayam. The whole process takes about one hour fifteen minutes, one hour thirty minutes. Then I go for a walk in the morning, with my wife, that is about forty five minutes. Then time is only for reading news papers and then keeping in touch with what is happening on the metros, what is the public reaction.”

“I am reading the papers only to see what public reaction to the metro performance. Mainly to keep a tab on that, that I do. Then I come to the office. Once I go back in the evening then again I do some spiritual reading, I read the Bhagvad Gita for fifteen, twenty minutes, again I have some pranayam and then I do yoga in the evening.”

Q: How long have you kept up this routine?

A: “This is going on for the last ten years, almost. Same routine, hardly any change.”

Q: And your trainees are asked to meditate as well?

A: “Yes. We train them, we expose them to the advantage of good health is very essential in a job of this type. People must be healthy. So we put them in that line where they should look after their health well and yoga, meditation, exercise these are very important.”

Q: The clocks on the wall (counting down to the next deadline), was that your idea?

A: “Yes. For the first sixty days. I brought this from the Konkan railways, this idea. Konkan railways also had the same.

“Sixty days the next section is to be opened. We call it the reverse clock. Everyday one. Tomorrow it will be fifty nine automatically.”

Q: Do you think the Congress government’s strong mandate will result in a bigger push towards building infrastructure?

A: “It will definitely make a difference. There will really be a good push towards infrastructure projects. I only wish that their priorities are correct.”

Q: In what sense?

A: “Because I feel our concentration should be more on basic infrastructure, like water supply, drainage, power, communication, roads, hospitals, education. Basic infrastructure should be, the pressure should be more on that rather than going to the moon. Chandrayaan.”

“Instead of going for prestigious type of projects, we should see that the basic needs of the people are met completely. Housing. Can you imagine a capital of this type, we do not have enough power, we don’t have enough drinking water. I mean the river here, even our rivers are a cesspool of only sewage.”

Q: Will the situation improve?

A: “It will definitely improve. Only thing is the implementation style has to change. You see the present implementation style the government will not be able to achieve much. Every project that the government takes up the implementation style has to change.

“There should be people made responsible for each item of work, they should be made accountable for it, and they should be enabled to function properly, no interference. That sort of implementation style has to change.”