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The danger of one

The Delhi Metro reveres one man. But new India must respect its heroes, not revere them. Rahul Gandhi understands this, writes Samar Halarnkar.

columns Updated: Oct 21, 2009 19:53 IST
Samar Halarnkar

‘He is our inspiration, every day. Men like these cannot retire.”

I heard that declaration from B.K. Mishra, while I gingerly walked up a narrow gangway fixed to the wall of a humid metro tunnel being bored under Delhi. Mishra was talking of his boss and Indian icon, E. Sreedharan, the 77-year-old managing director of the Delhi Metro, that rare marvel of State-run efficiency and harbinger of what India could be — if, as we like to say, we had a thousand Sreedharans.

Mishra is Chief Project Manager of the Delhi Metro, overseer of all construction on a three-line 75-km network that by next year will add another 125 km and 72 stations over six lines. Mishra is a 20-year veteran of the Indian Railways, a behemoth of one million employees — and an organisation that hasn’t yet managed to harness its talent to rid itself of obnoxious toilets dumping tonnes of human waste on its tracks. Taken out of the Railways, Mishra (45) has become a master of innovation — handling contractors and engineers from Japan and Thailand; equipment from Germany; working 13-hour days and going 30 days without a break; a man who couldn’t be kept down even after a worm in his brain landed him in an intensive care unit (ICU) this year.

That’s much like one of his deputies, Salim Ahmed, a former Bombay Port Trust engineer. Like his boss, Ahmed, at age 40, landed up in an ICU for an angioplasty. When I descended into Delhi’s bowels with these gentlemen earlier this month to watch a tunnel-boring machine chomp away at Delhi’s innards with its diamond teeth, I truly understood what it takes to create the new India.

The man whom Messrs Mishra and Ahmed — and thousands like them — revere has often talked of how he isn’t allowed to retire. Indeed, when I visited him in his 21st-century, glass-walled office overlooking the 53-year-old main railway line out of New Delhi station, Sreedharan was ramrod erect and didn’t look like he needed to retire.

Yet, he must consider it now.

Much has been written about a string of construction mishaps that have plagued the once-flawless Delhi Metro since last year. Most have been minor, and there is no question the media coverage was out of proportion. The most serious accident was the death of six construction workers when a concrete pier collapsed in July. There was nothing like the Hangzhou incident in China last year, when 21 died when a vast section of an under-construction metro tunnel collapsed, swallowing cars, workers and a bus.

But Sreedharan’s demonisation is hindering the growth of the Metro’s second rung of leadership. There is no plan B. With Sreedharan’s baby on the verge of reaching adolescence (the first train ran 12 years ago), it’s important to make sure it can now flourish on its own, away from the nurturing shade of its founder. That is the mark of a truly great organisation.

For evidence look no further than India’s software sector. S. Ramadorai has stepped away from Tata Consulting Services, India’s largest software company. At the second-largest, Infosys, so have N.R. Narayana Murthy and Nandan Nilekani.
Traditionally, India’s great weakness has been its dependence on charismatic individuals. Over the eras, empires have crumbled after strong rulers. We remember Ashoka the Great from the 2nd century BC; Akbar and Aurangzeb — from 17 and 18 centuries later — not their legacies.

How different it is with the British who created modern India with organisations that serve us still: the railways, the civil service, and the Army. But do you remember King George the V, our emperor less than 80 years ago?

I watch with interest, and exasperation, how quickly drivers in India manage to jam a traffic intersection when the signals break down (well, we do this even when the signals do work). In contrast, I once remember watching in fascination as a line of cars smoothly, and without honking, worked their way through a four-road signal-free intersection in an American town.

My theory is that Indians are creative, hardworking but volatile and anarchic. We are terrible at self-regulation, or at following a set of rules and established practices — unless enforced by someone we revere or fear. Are Indians good worker bees but poor gardeners? I actually put this question to Bill Gates when I interviewed him in 1999. Ever the politically correct software guru, Gates started visibly. “There is no genetic difference,” he said forcefully.

To change India, the old orthodoxy of hierarchy and hero worship must change. Let us respect our heroes, not revere them. I think Rahul Gandhi understands this. “My father was in politics. My grandmother and great-grandfather were in politics. So it was easy for me to enter politics,” he told rural students in Uttarakhand last October as part of his continuing discovery-of-India travels. “This is a problem. I am a symptom of this problem. I want to change it.” So, he tries to recreate the 125-year-old Congress party by urging it to return to the people, have internal elections and spawn an organisation that cannot, today, see beyond him, his sister or his mother.

The Delhi Metro is the first 21st-century, urban organisation of independent India (We did have Chandigarh, but we managed to destroy the vision of Le Corbusier, who in any case was Swiss). If we have to really test Mr Sreedharan’s baby, we may have to, reluctantly, let him retire.