Thursday, July 16, 2009

Come what may, I won't quit before the Games : Sreedharan

After the Delhi Metro mishap, its chief Mr. E. Sreedharan resigned from his office, but government did not accept his resignation. After a lot of pressure from government and other officials, he finally changed his mind and decided to head the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation until the Phase 2 work has been completed . Below are the excerpts from an interview with the Metro Man

Q: What was the reason, you took the decision to resign?

A: There were a number of reasons why I took that decision. I have been with this organization for over 11 years and we have had a very good track record. The first accident at Laxmi Nagar (last year on Vikas Marg) should not have really happened. I do not know who went into what went wrong. We took action to improve our surveillance and monitoring for safety.

Safety is a part of every contract agreement. In addition, we have our own consultants who go around work sites and carry out checks. My mandate to them is to stop work no matter what happens the minute they find something is amiss in terms of safety or quality. With this level of safety monitoring if still a second accident like Sunday's happens, I must take responsibility.

Q: God forbid, but if another accident happens, will you again quit? And won't you then be known as a quitter?

A: I will not leave this organization until Phase II (until the Commonwealth Games in 2010) is completed, whatever happens. It's a duty, a commitment to the nation. With the type of comfort and assurance I got from the Chief Minister, the L-G, minister Jaipal Reddy and even from the level of Mr Rahul Gandhi he rang me up saying, "Please don't quit, we are all behind you'' my effort will be to ensure that such a thing doesn't happen again.

Q. But why do you think Sunday's accident happened?

A. I am still waiting to see what really went wrong. Being an experienced engineer, my own hunch is that there was a design deficiency on that particular pier. There was a crack noticed on it in March, and I personally went to see it. I was not at all happy and put a special safety team to look into it, who concluded that it was just a surface crack. Even then I was not too happy. So we took a decision that this pier has to be tested with full load...

Q. Does that personally, you wanted the pier to be demolished?

A. Yes, I did. But that was not possible as the other girder had already been raised and was resting on the pier. This girder weighed 450 tonnes and the pier could not be demolished till this load was removed. My team advised me not to go for this and test it for load after finishing the construction. I succumbed to that suggestion, I would say. That is another reason why I felt I owed moral responsibility. I should have just put my foot down and ordered demolition, which I didn't do. I am a technical man myself and can't absolve myself of responsibility.

Our plan of action was to complete the other girder too and then test load it with full train load, keeping margin for support. But when construction started, only half of it had been completed, the pier couldn't withstand the load of this half and the launcher girder, weighing 300 tonnes.

Q. Had the 2010 Commonwealth Games deadline not been there, do you think you would have gone with your gut feel and demolished the pier?

A. No, that's not the reason. We are already 5-6 months ahead of schedule in this stretch so there was plenty of time. If I really wanted, I could have demolished it.

Q. Will the accident delay this line?

A. There is going to be a delay of three months, but only at this location. The overall line will not get affected as the rest of the work is going on.

Q. There was a controversy when this line was announced as many wanted it to be underground. After this accident, do you think that in crowded areas the Metro should go underground, even if the cost is more?

A. The dangers in an underground tunnel construction are much more. Moreover, the cost goes up by nearly three times and the construction time is also higher. I feel it is better to go for elevated wherever possible.

Q. What constraints do you feel while executing a big infrastructure project like this?

A. There is a big shortage of contractors. Some of the big contractors like L&T don't want to look at a work that's for less than Rs 300-400 crore. Most of our tenders are Rs 100-120 crore. All of them have got such a lot of work in the country and are so stretched. In the Badarpur line, which was the last line to be sanctioned by the government before the Commonwealth Games, when we called for tenders for the last 10 stations, there was no response. Then we had to re-tender and even then only one contractor came forward Gammon. We have got 2-3 contractors who are not coming up to our expectations. But no one is available to replace them.

Q. In this situation where good contractors are scarce, do you end up settling for the second best contractor to meet the deadlines?

A. We always shortlist contractors before actually starting the selection process. We call global tenders and call for tenders from about 7-8 parties. After that, the lowest bidder is selected.

Contractors also have a serious problem, which the country should understand. Engineers are available but technical workers like masons, bar benders, shuttering people, and electricians are very hard to find. The shortage is so acute that a lot of poaching is going on.

Q. That's one constraint. What are the others impeding India's effort to build world-class infrastructure?

A. There is a critical shortage of cement and steel. Power is not enough. Would you believe if I tell you that every contractor working with us has his own genset? They just can't depend on power from the city. I went to Shanghai recently and found that they are able to go construct tunnels much cheaper than us. And one of the main reasons was assured quality power. That alone brings down the energy cost by at least two-thirds. Energy costs account for about 15% of the cost of the project, so if power is available, cost can be reduced by 10% straightaway. Another problem is that of quality engineers, which we are addressing by training them in-house.

Q. In a situation where it is a sellers' market for contractors, the task of disciplining them must be tough...

A. But the right message has to be sent out to all contractors in the event of lapses. We blacklisted Afcons a good contractor for one year after the Laxmi Nagar indicent. We also enforce discipline through financial squeeze. We fine them, impose high penalties. Afcons also had to pay a heavy fine running into crores and not Rs 5 lakh as a paper wrote today. There have been cases where fines of Rs 1 lakh have been imposed when a worker was found without a helmet.

Q. How do Indian infrastructure companies compare with international companies?

A: Chinese companies are very poor. But compared to countries like Japan, Singapore, Germany, our contractors are no match. Their culture is different. Once they take a work, the price might be high but they take total responsibility for everything. Our contractors are still not able to match up. But we still have a soft corner of Indian contractors, who are improving (smiles).

Q. The Times of India called Sunday as Metro's darkest day. It also wondered whether DMRC was compromising quality for speed. Was it off the mark?

A. It's true that it has been a very major accident, the blackest in the history of Delhi Metro. But the impression that we are rushing up with work is not correct. We have made our organization so big that it can handle the project. For example, in Phase I, we had only three chief project managers and four directors. Now we have seven chief project managers and seven directors. I'll tell how this has strengthened our capacity.

When I was heading Konkan Railways, the then railway minister George Fernandes asked me how much time I needed to complete the project. I said seven years. My theory is normally a 100-km railway in difficult areas can be built in 6-7 years time. So, for Konkan Railways, which is 450 km long, I thought we will have multiple chief engineers and each of them would finish his portion of 100 km in 6-7 years time. Fernandes listened to me and then said, "But I will give you only five years'' (laughs).

Q. You very promised to be with Delhi Metro till Phase II is over. After that what?

A. After phase II, my intention is to retire.

Q. Does that mean Phase III of Delhi Metro will be without Mr Sreedharan?

A. Well, that is my plan. We still don't know what will happen. The government might ask me to stay on in an advisory role. But, I don't want to be a job where I am not in control. The mind and its faculties you can control and maintain, but not the body. The body ages.

Q. When you say retire, does that mean retire from life as a technocrat. Or retire from public life?

A. Retire from professional life and public life. I will not be available to preside over a conference or to give lectures. I want to devote my time to spirituality then. I plan to go back to my village near Palghat in Kerala. My children are all settled. I have no domestic worries. By the time I retire, I will be 80 and there will be no time for these sort of pursuits.

Q. So what happens to DMRC after you? Who takes over?

A. I am already grooming people to take over from me. But they will not flower till I am here. It's something like a banyan tree unless you cut it, the other trees can't grows. I must quit for others to grow.

Q. Do they call you a control freak in the organization?

A. To tell you very frankly, they don't think I am a control freak. The organization doesn't feel my weight. I don't impose myself but set an example for others. But, of course, the final decision is mine and if it is different from what they wanted, they accept it gracefully.

Q. How did your family react when you decided to quit last Sunday?

A. I decided to resign and sent the letter without consulting my wife or children. When the press conference was over and everyone knew it, I came back to my office when my wife rang up from Kerala and asked what has happened. I asked her if she was upset. She said no, her stand was very supportive. She said you have done it for your principles, it's good. All the children told me the same. In fact, they have been pressurizing me to retire and go away. Only my wife feels that you should work as long as you can. Even money is not a temptation. If I confide in you, I actually send my entire salary for charity. I live on my pension. So even if I get 10 times the salary, it is not going to benefit me at all.

Q. Are these designated charities?

A. They are in the name of my mother, who was an absolute illiterate. She could not even sign her name. Yet she brought up eight children, and all of us have reached high positions. Imagine her sacrifice. The charities are for educating needy children, for medical expenses, even marriages of very poor people. I get very little time to devote for this, it's basically only holidays.

Q. Is that what makes Sreedharan tick or is there something that you do to stay fighting fit?

A: I do yoga everyday, provided I am able to get out of the office on time. I leave by 5.30 on most days. The other day, a meeting was scheduled for 6 pm and I told then clearly that my brain doesn't work after 5 pm. Everyone, the chief minister down, knows that and they don't disturb me at home after 9 pm. I go for a walk too.

Q. You have worked for the public sector for a long time. Why is the private sector seen as more efficient?

A. I don't think so. The public sector too can have an equally vibrant delivery system. In fact, that is what the Prime Minister asks every time he meets me why can't we replicate DMRC in other areas?

Q. Is it possible?

A. The main thing is that politicians and bureaucrats should not control the organization that's one advantage I have here. They must select the right person to lead the organization. There may be mistakes...I will not say that I haven't committed mistakes. But let him be. Of course, the person's integrity levels should to be very high. I am a retired person. The government has no hold on me but they have still given me Rs 20,000 crore to spend on Phase II. That is only based on my integrity and track record.

Q. Why are these qualities so rare in the public sector?

A. Because, for most of the public sector, the chiefs are chosen for political consideration or some other consideration. And the moment he goes there, the agenda is to please the political masters instead of doing what is good for the organization. Instead, he needs to have the courage to walk away if the boss isn't happy. When I was with Konkan Railways, I was not at all liked by the board or railway ministers. But I never bothered and did what was in the interest of the corporation.

Q: have spoken up against the planned alignment of the Kashmir railway line. Now that they have reassessed and decided to go ahead with the alignment, what do you have to say?

A. The project will not get completed before the next 15 years. And even after that, it will be dangerous. I still feel they should have gone for the shortest alignment. The tunnel length is not getting increased but they are going over a longer distance. They could have saved almost 65 km in this 130 km line.

Q. Do you think the Metro can be the transport backbone for the city?

A. Metro has to be the backbone for any transport system, but buses are needed to supplement it. Even the four planned phases of Metro are not enough. We will definitely require more. Ideally, there should be a Metro station entry on every street so that no one has to walk for more than half a km to reach a station.

Q. In your long career, are there any regrets?

A. (Thinks hard) I don't think so. A professional life has many ups and downs. For example, the choice of gauge for Delhi Metro was a disappointment for me. It was a serious setback also at that time. But I got over it. Even with the Hyderabad Metro project, we withdrew the moment we realized things were not transparent...I lose my temper only on quality, not delays.