It was the early 1970s when Delhi's need for a mass rapid transit system for its increasing population was first felt. Many plans, studies and committees chased this thought in the following decades, leading to the formation of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) in 1995.
But things really got moving only in 1997 when Elattuvalapil Sreedharan (79), a senior Railway engineer of repute, was asked to take over as DMRC's managing director. A job Sreedharan had first flatly refused. "I was already 65 years old and didn't really need a job," he says.
With the Delhi Government persisting, Sreedharan finally relented but lay down his conditions before he joining as the Metro chief. "I demanded full independence, my own team and no interference if I had to deliver the project," he says. "They honoured my conditions."
With a small office in Lodhi Road, a handpicked team of employees and a no-nonsense attitude, Sreedharan got on to the task, which in the next five years, not only made him a household name in Delhi, but a national icon.
When DMRC opened its first corridor between Shahdara and Tis Hazari on December 25, 2002, it changed the way the city moved. Delhiites now had a new commuting etiquette, a sense of responsibility towards public property and higher expectations from civic agencies.
Born in a remote village in Palghat (Palakkad) district of Kerala, Sreedharan initially wanted to become a doctor. He eventually graduated from the Government Engineering College, Kakinada in April 1953 and started his career as a lecturer at the Kerala Polytechnic, Calicut. However, a year later he joined the elite Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE).
Sreedharan earned his spurs after restoring the Pamban Railway Bridge in just 46 days, after 125 spans of the bridge were washed away in a tidal wave in December 1963. He was also in-charge of investigation, planning and design of the first ever Metro in the country in Kolkata from 1970 to 1975.
"Even as construction was going to start, Sreedharan opened a new design office. If he hadn't done that, Kolkata metro wouldn't have come up," says Professor SK Das, former IRSE and visiting faculty at the Institute of Engineering and Management, Kolkata.
Das, who worked with Sreedharan for four years at Kolkata Metro, says he was a completely hands-on boss. "His approach towards work was that everything had to be done the way he wanted it. He, however, would never lose his temper during site inspections," he adds. "Even though I was a much junior officer but he would notice my work and guide me. He likes people who are serious and punctual," he says.
When Sreedharan retired in June 1990, he was in charge of building the prestigious Konkan Railway project, which was an engineering challenge.
After he took over as DMRC's MD, Sreedharan brought in a work culture that is not associated with public sector undertakings. "Decisions were quick and execution was quicker at DMRC. I came to DMRC on deputation and wasn't used to such a work culture," says a senior DMRC official who didn't wish to be named. "There were no peons at the DMRC office because files didn't move here, people did."
Sreedharan is very good listener but the last word is always his, the senior official says, "He is an inspiring leader who leads by example. He is the reason that most of us who had come on deputation, chose not to go back to our parent departments despite the huge work pressure here."
Anuj Dayal, chief PRO of DMRC recalls a visit to Mexico many years ago when some of his colleagues expected to let their hair down and just take it easy for a few days. "The MD, however, ensured that we were on time for not only meetings but also lunch and dinners and maintained official etiquette during our stay." he says.
"It's due to his integrity and competence that Sreedharan has made the Delhi Metro what it is today," says M Ramachandran, former secretary, urban development ministry.
Ramachandran, who was also the Chairman of DMRC for four years, feels that it was Sreedharan's personality, reputation and integrity that helped him push decisions without facing the usual bureaucratic red tape. "He already had a reputation when he joined as MD and that is why he perhaps enjoyed more powers than what another head of a public sector utility would," Ramachandran says. "However, it should also be kept in mind that the central government and other associated agencies also facilitated the project, such as making land available."
After 14 years at the helm of DMRC, Sreedharan has finally hung his boots but he leaves behind a vast legacy. Delhi's expectation from the Metro are now higher than when Sreedharan joined DMRC and it remains to be seen how his successor carries the mantle.