Delhi’s Subway Builder

Forbes Asia
May 11, 2009

The managing director is 77 years old, spiritual and is laying tracks like there’s no tomorrow.

On a recent Saturday morning Elattuvalapil Sreedharan arrived at a dusty construction site on the outskirts of Delhi to check on the progress of India’s first high-speed airport train. In spite of round-the-clock work, progress on boring a huge tunnel into the earth was not up to mark.

“This we discussed. I gave them guidelines,” says the soft-spoken 77-year-old engineer who is managing director of Delhi Metro, the capital’s gleaming subway system. After finding out that a contractor was stymied by a cash flow problem, Sreedharan freed up Delhi Metro funds to pay for materials so work could continue.


This is the kind of no-nonsense, bureaucracy-busting efficiency that is Sreedharan’s hallmark. It helped him to accomplish what had seemed impossible in India: finish building the initial $2.3 billion subway system in 2005 under budget and almost three years ahead of schedule.

Each Saturday Sreedharan dons a white hard hat and personally inspects part of Delhi Metro’s citywide expansion that will extend its existing 40-mile reach.

Building this 80-mile extension would normally take 15 to 20 years, but Delhi Metro must complete the expansion by September 2010–in three and a half years–just in time to welcome thousands of visitors who will descend on Delhi for the Commonwealth Games the following month.

“Overambitious Indian infrastructure project” may be a redundant term, but this is Delhi Metro, the country’s gem that proves an exception to the rule. Much the same could be said of Sreedharan himself.

This slight, bespectacled Metro Man says the expansion, which includes a high-speed airport train to the city center, is all under control. “We are quite geared up for completion,” he calmly reports.

If anyone can pull off this daunting $4.25 billion project it is a man whose humble serenity is not incidental; he wakes well before dawn every day to meditate and read the Bhagavad Gita, does yoga each morning and walks for at least 45 minutes in the evening.

In India hardly anyone escapes scathing criticism, especially bombastic politicians and corrupt bureaucrats. But Sreedharan is unusual. He has kept to the public sector, spurning various private entreaties. A plaque in his office quotes from the Indian scripture Yog Vashisht: “Work I do; not that ‘I’ do it.”

More than 800,000 people use Delhi Metro each day, and it remains clean and punctual, with 99.9% of all trains running on time since it began operating. The sleek underground system, which looks like it was transplanted from Japan, is in jarring contrast to the normal chaos of India.

In October a new line of “Phase Two” is slated to open in the eastern part of Delhi. After that more lines are on track to start operation every few months. Phase Two will culminate in completion of subway lines that will extend to the southern part of Delhi by September 2010.

Sreedharan and 3,500 employees are constantly reminded of their tough deadlines. His desk faces a digital clock that counts down the days before the next line must be completed. Similar clocks are found throughout Delhi Metro’s offices and construction sites.

About 80% of the tunneling work and station construction is finished. “You don’t see that because it is underground,” explains Sreedharan. “We’re now fitting up the stations, lighting and ventilation.”

Delhi Metro is no mere showpiece. Urban planners advise that cities with populations of more than 2 million should have mass transit systems. Delhi Metro is essential for curbing congestion and pollution in the capital, which boasts a population of 16 million.

When the expansion is done, 2 million passengers are expected to use the metro daily. It is one of the few subway systems in the world that is operationally profitable without government subsidies, thanks to revenue from advertising, property leases and parking fees, in addition to ticket sales. It racked up revenue of $100 million last fiscal year and profit before taxes of $3.98 million. Also, other Indian cities pay consulting fees to learn how to gain from Delhi Metro’s experience.

Of course, the system only nets out that way because of low-interest loans from a Japanese development bank, with the remaining favorable financing from the state and national governments. The state supplies electricity for running the Delhi subway.

Still, someone needed to get it up and running. Sreedharan’s star quality began to show early in his career. He trained as a civil engineer in Kakinda, Andhra Pradesh. At Indian Railways he made his mark by restoring a storm-ravaged bridge in 46 days when it might have taken six months. He went on to help design India’s first metro in Kolkata in 1970 and then served as head of Cochin Shipyard in Kerala.

He officially retired in 1990 but was lured back to work to build the Konkan Railway, which runs through mountainous terrain to connect strategic ports in Mumbai and Mangalore. By 1997 Delhi Metro’s fathers were calling and full-time contemplation would have to wait.

Sreedharan accomplishes the “simple arithmetic” of timely completion by divvying up work among half a dozen project managers who are tasked with their own deadlines. Sreedharan reviews daily progress reports and meets weekly with top staff and consultants. “Each [project chief] will finish his work on time,” he insists.


Land acquisition, often a rub in India, was sped under a national act for public projects and in this case even green lobbies gave their blessing for construction. Unlike the system in Kolkata, which falls under the railways ministry, Delhi’s is able to settle tenders and set fares on its own. (The airport link, a public/private arrangement with Reliance Infrastructure and CAF of Spain, caters to monied travelers and so will charge as much as $3–150 rupees–per trip. It’s a small amount compared with rates in developed countries but far more than 40 cents for the longest ride on Delhi Metro.)

There are, of course, challenges. Pockets of land still need to be acquired. Contracts with a host of foreign vendors such as Bombardier, Alstom, Thales, Mitsubishi and Parson Brinkerhoff must be managed. About 3,500 more employees must be recruited and trained in the next year.

When the last track and signal are installed Sreedharan plans to go back home to Kerala to devote more time to the Bhagavad Gita and another religious text, the Gita Makaranda. (The latter is given to each Delhi Metro employee upon hire.)

Meantime, Sreedharan has not only the rail project but also an advisory board slot at a new Foundation for the Restoration of National Values. Business tycoon Ratan Tata and a former chief justice of India are serving, too. The foundation aims to “bring in good values in all areas of national life, to cleanse corruption in high places,” says Sreedharan.

It’s a tacit acknowledgement that corruption is the biggest obstacle to progress and efficiency in India. “Bureaucrats don’t have the courage to stand up to politicians,” he laments. But a success like the transit system he’s building can turn heads.

“It is gradually changing. Many departments have started their own practices,” says Sreedharan. So much so that “I’m confident that within five years we can make a lot of improvement.”

A lofty goal for India–with a timetable beyond the one for finishing Delhi Metro.

Partners Wanted

Elattuvalapil Sreedharan is a public-sector man but one with a preference for more private-sector participation in civic works. His advice:

–Government should exempt essential projects from taxes and duties, which would lower project costs by 15% to 18%.

–Clearances, whether for land acquisition or site preparation, should be granted quickly, ideally through a single body.

–Infrastructure projects should be viewed as beneficial in themselves rather than as sources of revenue.

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