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Still waiting for a streetcar named retire

HT meets Metro Man E Sreedharan in his Kerala village home, only to find that work and the longing to retire continues to stalk the 80-year-old. Subhendu Ray reports.

delhi Updated: Sep 13, 2012 02:10 IST
Subhendu Ray

At 80, India's Metro Man and one of the country's most prominent advocates of technocracy, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, still longs to retire.

He had stepped down as the managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) last December, packed his bags and left Delhi to settle in the remote and stunningly green coastal Kerala village of his in-laws - Ponnani.

After serving five post-retirement extensions because of his brilliance and indispensability in a nation waking up to metro rail, Sreedharan thought he had earned the right to a retired life.

But retirement began with a clutch of fresh, challenging work. He is setting up monorail transit systems in Thiruvananthapuram and Calicut, a metro rail in the latter, and a high-speed rail corridor linking the state capital with Mangalore.

The pioneer
Sreedharan set up Konkan Railway, known for its groundbreaking use of modern techniques. He pioneered the metro rail in India, setting it up in Kolkata and Delhi. He helped rebuild the Pamban Bridge connecting Rameshwaram to mainland Tamil Nadu after it was washed away by a cyclone.

"After I retired, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy requested me to take up projects in Kerala, my home state. I could not refuse and here I am. Just give me three years to finish my work in these four projects," says Sreedharan, adjusting his spotless white mundu (traditional south Indian cloth wrapped around the waist) and neatly creased white shirt.

Winding down
The only time he dresses in formals is when he attends important meetings in Kerala and Delhi. Even now, the Delhi Metro authorities call him for crisis management or urgent advice.

At his small office, you find his personal assistant Govindan working at a desktop computer, books, a fax machine, phones and stacked-up files - not very different from his Delhi office at the sprawling Metro Bhavan. But his current office is at his in-law's home where his wife and his 99-year-old ailing bedridden mother-in-law live with him.

He still enters office sharp at 9am every day.

The only hint of a chaos in the house is a slightly unkempt pile of books in the bedroom. These books are mostly on spirituality. "So much to read up," he says. "After three years, I will devote my time entirely to spirituality."

An extraordinary life
He jogs his memory down more than five decades of his professional journey, which began as an assistant engineer with the Indian Railways in the early 1960s and along the way made him a household name.

This is a man who makes ordinary people do extraordinary things. Many labourers and employees of the Delhi Metro project were lured into petro-dollar jobs in the Gulf.

"I am a simple man with simple tastes. Work is worship to me," he says. "The Bhagwad Gita gives me administrative power. I don't consider Gita a religious book. It is an administrative gospel."

He lives in a sprawling house surrounded by greenery which has become almost the patented hallmark of Kerala. A jasmine fragrance hangs in the air as you enter his drawing room. Glimpses of his success story hang as photos on white walls.

His living room on the first floor has a huge shelf of books. It has a large swing cot and a treadmill (which he and his wife use when it rains and they are unable to go out for their customary brisk walk).

"When I wanted to retire as MD Delhi Metro in December last year, there was a lot of pressure from Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and the Union government to continue as DMRC chief for some more years. But this time I was adamant. The Kerala government, however, persuaded me to take up some projects," he says.

The Kerala government appointed him as a member of the Kerala Planning Board and also wanted to make him the chairman of Kochi Metro, which he turned down. This project was handed over to the DMRC. He, however, acts as advisor in these projects.

As we talk, his 72-year-old wife Radha Sreedhar brings in cups of tea and bonda, boiled banana, vada, sambhar, coconut chutney, steamed sweets and banana chips and many more items.

"I made them all for you. Hope you would enjoy typical south Indian food," she says.

"We eat, walk, do yoga together and watch spiritual programmes on TV. But I have no role in his office," she says.

Sreedharan says he travels about 10 days a month, sometimes to handle crises in the Delhi Metro, like the sudden suspension of service on the 23-km Airport Metro Express because of construction faults. He has three more offices in Calicut, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.

Talking Delhi metro
Asked about Delhi Metro's ongoing third phase, Sreedharan says it is a closed chapter for him. "I am sure Mangu Singh (the current chief) is managing the show well. He is now the country's best serving technocrat. Unless DMRC officials ask me for any support or suggestion, I do not interfere. I really do not want to shadow its work. Sreedharan is no longer DMRC's boss and I made the point very clear to the officers and employees of the DMRC," he says.

Sreedharan, whom Time magazine called the 'Asian hero' in 2003, still cannot forget the 2009 Zamrudpur mishap in which six were killed in a Metro pillar collapse because of bad construction. Taking moral responsibility, he immediately offered to quit as the Metro boss but the Delhi CM refused to accept it.

"Zamrudpur still gives me pain. It was the worst incident in my career," says Padma Shri and Padma Vibhusan awardee.

He is also working towards a mission to "bring in good values in all areas of national life and cleanse high places of corruption" as a member of the advisory board of Foundation for the Restoration of National Values, which has industrialist Ratan Tata and a former chief justice of India as members.

A major heart attack in 2009 could not take away his dynamism. "I am quite fit now. I just have three medicines - one for the heart, one for cholesterol and one for sugar."

As you leave little Ponnani, where hardly anyone knows that a legend lives among them, you seem to understand where the quiet, irrepressible energy of India's metro network sprung from.