Subway sets a new standard

Engineer praised for on-time, on-budget system in New Delhi

February 25, 2007|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,Chicago Tribune

NEW DELHI -- The streets of India's sprawling capital are not for the faint of heart.

Platoons of motorcycles, ramshackle buses, fume-spewing trucks and struggling bicycle-rickshaw riders jostle for space with wandering sacred cows, motorized rickshaw taxis, legions of cars, magazine-waving vendors, horse-drawn carts and the occasional plodding elephant. Motor-scooter drivers, fed up with traffic jams, roar down the sidewalks, threatening to flatten pedestrians. Everybody honks, all the time.

Below ground, the Delhi Metro subway system is a different world.

Broad stairways and well-maintained elevators descend to spacious air-conditioned stations. High-tech tokens and smart cards open state-of-the-art passenger gates that lead to sleek, quiet, stainless steel trains with comfortable seating, air conditioning and spotless floors. Electronic displays show the waiting time to the next arrival - just minutes away - and the trains usually run on schedule.

This remarkably different Delhi is the vision of an unlikely hero - Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, a modest, straight-talking 74-year-old government civil engineer who is almost single-handedly revolutionizing the way things are done in India.

His success with the Delhi subway system - on the heels of a disastrous similar project in Calcutta - has spurred India's once-wary government to push ahead with subways in nearly every major city. Most Indian construction workers now wear hardhats and safety equipment, after he insisted on it for his workers.

India's people, used to third-rate facilities, are beginning to demand better after seeing from his efforts that it is possible. And politicians who used to sabotage public works projects with demands that contracts go to political cronies "have started to acknowledge that good results are possible and to see that they get the credit" for projects that work, Sreedharan said.

Corruption and political interference "are still big problems," he said. "But things are changing."

Sreedharan, a yoga devotee whose great passion is reading the Bhagavad Gita and other ancient Hindu scriptures in their original Sanskrit, could hardly be more different from most of India's high-flying construction moguls.

His salary is a 20th of what he could earn in the private market, analysts say. His corporate structure is minimalist, with engineers writing their own letters rather than relying on secretaries. But his aim is what most sets him apart - making life more dignified for millions of average Indians rather than making money from them.

"I am working not for myself alone but for society, the community," said the managing director of the Delhi Metro Rail Corp. "I don't take this job for the remuneration, but for the satisfaction of creating some really good facility for the public."

Delhi Metro's half-million daily passengers, who sometimes touch his feet in a gesture of respect when they spot him, are delighted.

"It's creating inner happiness for us to travel in this way. It's hard to describe," said Padam Singh, 26, who once traveled Delhi's streets in jammed, sweltering buses.

Sreedharan "has done it honestly. He's brilliant," said Gagan Kakkar, 38, a bathroom-fixtures vendor whose commute has been cut from an hour to 15 minutes by the subway. In most of the rest of India, "building a bridge takes 25 years," he said.

Sreedharan, a public servant in India's government railway service for half a century, has made his biggest mark since retiring.

In 1990, after stepping down and aiming to return to his rural childhood village in southern Kerala state, he was drafted by the government to manage construction of the 475-mile Konkan Railway through mountainous southwest India.

The complicated project, which involved blasting more than 90 tunnels and building 150 bridges, came in on time and within budget, a near miracle in a nation where building just 10 miles of subway tracks in Calcutta had taken 22 years and 12 times the original budget.

Impressed, India's government and officials in New Delhi presented Sreedharan, then 67, with another epic task: building a subway system through the heart of the country's chaotic capital, now home to nearly 14 million people.

The engineer agreed, with a few conditions. He and his staff would quickly award contracts to prequalified bidders, to minimize interference from politicians. He would choose his own team of engineers. He would build the project to world standards, not to Indian ones. And he would have the power to bypass most of the country's complicated bureaucracy.

Soon German-made boring machines were slicing through the earth below Delhi, opening tunnels without a need to tear up roads, a major fear of residents. Each tree cut for a station was replaced with 10 saplings. Sreedharan ordered state-of-the-art South Korean trains and French signaling equipment, and encouraged his engineers to make fast decisions and find creative solutions.

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