Does India want its ‘Metro man’ to resign?
If the early comments on the Great Debate are anything to go by, it seems there is still a lot of goodwill towards Elattuvalapil Sreedharan.
The man behind the Delhi metro, seen as one of India’s most successful infrastructure projects, resigned on Sunday after part of a rail bridge in the capital collapsed and killed six people.
Sreedharan had enjoyed a towering profile as a civil engineer who got things done — and quickly. In the words of his spokesman, Sreedharan “can walk into the prime minister’s office. He has a reputation that he carries.”
Business students from as far away as Harvard have studied the metro’s success.
In contrast to the delays, cost-overruns and red tape that have plagued projects for decades, the subway’s first phase finished on budget and nearly three years ahead of schedule, with 99.5 percent of trains running on time.
All eyes were on the second phase, which is due for completion when the city hosts the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
But the deaths have raised questions whether the quick building came at the expense of human lives.
When he submitted his resignation, the 77-year-old Sreedharan won praise for accepting “moral responsibility” for the accident.
I interviewed Sreedharan recently, and his words now seem almost prophetic. His drive for speed was clear.
In his office, as in many others in his organisation, hangs a clock counting down the days to the next deadline.
“For us, time is money,” he told me. “We can’t allow one day to waste.”
Behind his desk, reads a sign quoting Sanskrit scriptures: “Whatever to be done I do, but in reality, I do not do anything.”
He emphasised the importance of integrity, which he said made the government trust his organisation enough to let go of most of the decision-making.
“People should be prepared to take decisions and not pass on the buck,” he said. “We should be able to trust people in power, which means people in power should have a proven integrity.”
Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit has since persuaded Sreedharan to withdraw his resignation. Many want him to keep his job, saying the project is better off with him on board.
An editorial in the Indian Express said the resignation was “decidedly not what the Metro project needs.”
“This, in a sense, is a test case for infrastructure policy: will it continue to revolve around individuals and their differing degrees of commitment to these projects, or can we ensure that these crucial projects, which undergird our economic future, roll out successfully with stronger institutional checks and progress reviews?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has recruited Nandan Nilekani, the engineer-entrepreneur who co-founded Infosys Technologies and helped propel India’s rise as an IT giant, to head a government authority on national ID cards.
Singh said India needed experts like Nilekani from outside the political system. Singh may feel the same about Sreedharan.
As Dikshit said: “The metro and the country needs him, because he has done good work not only in Delhi, he has done it all over India.”