Sixteen years after becoming the Managing Director of DMRC, E Sreedharan stepped down on December 31 leaving behind a 190 km network of Delhi Metro across the NCR. In an interview with CNBC-TV18's Shereen Bhan, the metro man said that it was not so much as the politicians as the bureaucrats of the country who were stalling its progress.
Below is the full transcript of the interview:
Shereen Bhan: Hello and welcome to a CNBC-TV18 special, I am Shereen Bhan and I am in conversation with a man, who, a lot of people regard, has pulled off an Indian miracle, pulled off large scale infrastructure project in India ahead of schedule. E Sreedharan, appreciate you joining us on here on CNBC-TV18. Before I talk to you about the lessons that you learnt, on your journey in DMRC and before that at Konkan Railways, I want to talk to you about the current state of affair in the country, with regards to business, of policy paralysis, lack of decision making. Are you afraid that this is going to impact India's infrastructure development significantly?
E Sreedharan: Certainly, because there is really no government functioning today, everybody is only playing politics, no real governance is taking place. Unfortunately our politicians are only politicians, they are not statesman, and naturally the country suffers. The way we started in the early 90s, I thought we would come up very fast but during the last one or two years, things are not looking very bright.
Shereen Bhan: Do you blame the politicians or the bureaucracy? Because if you talk to the politicians, they say what we can do, it's a central or the state government issue. If you talk to the centre they say the state government doesn't play ball with us. You talk to the bureaucrats they say why should we sign something that we may be held accountable for later. So, this immense sense of distrust between the political community and bureaucracy which is now impacting practical decision making in every aspect of governance in this country.
E Sreedharan: In a way, you are right but really the policy decisions are to be taken by the politicians, the bureaucrats only implement it, true. Today the atmosphere has been created in the country where politicians don’t give policy decision. And even if the decisions are given the bureaucrats are stalling to carry it out for fear of scandals and things like that, anything that they do, they feel that they will get into the trouble. So they are reluctant to carry out even what is required for the country. If you really look back the way, the country was ruled about 50 years back, the ICS bureaucrats, they were really ruling the country not the politicians. Politicians are only giving the general guidelines, how we should proceed.
Shereen Bhan: So, do you believe that there is need of stronger bureaucracy today?
E Sreedharan: No, I don't say that, I would say that we want a very committed bureaucracy.
Shereen Bhan: Do you believe that the situation today is far worst then it ever was? Do you believe the situation is much worst then when you were trying to get the DMRC up and running?
E Sreedharan: I think so, when we were wanting the DMRC or the metro to come up in Delhi there was a whole hearted support from every angle, the politicians and the bureaucrats. Today we find things have changed here in Delhi Metro itself, to get the things done has become so difficult today.
Shereen Bhan: It is because the multiplicity in decision making bodies? What is the problem exactly according to you?
E Sreedharan: To an extent, this multiplicity of decision making bodies was still there. It is not a new thing. Now the attitude of the bureaucracy particularly, politicians are found wanting.
Shereen Bhan: Are the bureaucrats scared at this point of time. Do you believe this is the biggest problem?
E Sreedharan: Yes, they are terribly afraid. They don’t want to stick their neck out. That is a real situation, no body wants to take a real decision. Otherwise why should things drag on, drag on.
Shereen Bhan: Then what would be the solution and I want to pick up the instances that you faced in your own career, while you are trying to get the Delhi Metro up and running. I understand that there was a face off when the politicians would lobby for the Germans. You insisted that it would be Japanese, you stuck your neck out and said no we need to tie up with the Japanese. How would you go through with that?
E Sreedharan: See at that time things were very clear. We were getting Japanese aid and we went for the general consultant we had appointed and we went through normal and very transparent process of the selecting a consultant, in that process a consortium of Japanese companies came up for selection. Now everybody can throw it out simply because somebody wants Germans to come in. So I had to stand up and say yes, we will not change the decision that we have taken and we will go ahead with the Japanese consultant. Today I wonder whether the officials and the directors would stand up for the principle of this type. I want they would really do it.
Shereen Bhan: How many time did you threaten to quit, in this span of getting metro running. Because I understand that every time you needed to take a tough decision, you would pretty much lay down the rules saying that if you don't agree, what is good for the project, you would actually decide to opt out.
E Sreedharan: In fact I didn't give any threat of resigning and running away from my responsibilities. What I used to tell them was, if you don’t accept me or accept my ideas, please find somebody else to do it. I would like to get away from that, it was not the threat of resignation. It was only if they don’t agree with me, I said I will have to walk away, there is no other way. So that was not used as a weapon.
Shereen Bhan: What could be the possible way forward, when the distrust is so immense, clearly decision making has slowed down. What would be way forward from here?
E Sreedharan: I think, there is a need for a mind set with our bureaucrats, there is no doubt about that. I want to give you the simple example of the Kochi metro project which I am now handling. This project was conceived in 2005. At that time the cost was only Rs 2,500 crore for the project. It was the politicians who wanted to this project to come up without any distinction. The Communists government wanted this, the Congress government wanted this but the bureaucrats were against it. Simply because that it should be done as PPP model, knowing very well that in a PPP model nobody comes and invests unless he knows that he going to get returns out of it. Already the projects have been cleared by the public investment board and it is only a matter of days and it would be cleared by the government also. The cost has gone up from original Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,100 crore. Who do you blame? You can't blame the politicians for the cost over run, this is only because the bureaucrats didn't take the right decision at the right time.
Shereen Bhan: I want to pick up from the point you brought about the public and the private partnership concerns and you know very often in this country, privatisation or public partnership are the sort of scenes to get rid of all the problems within the system. You don't believe that public-private partnerships in this country have really delivered the goods, have they?
E Sreedharan: I am not against the public and private participation personally. We should only realise that a private individual comes and invests money only when he is expecting a return out of it. It is a business for him.
Shereen Bhan: Sure.
E Sreedharan: So projects which are financially very viable, which get a good financial return, certainly you go for a public-private participation. But projects which you know are social types of project, is meant to only serve the society, where we don't expect any business return; you can't hand it to a PPP model.
Shereen Bhan: But look at the state of affairs. As far as the Indian railways are concerned there is no question of privatisation. There are committees after committees which come up with the suggestions and ways to monetise land, bring in public-private partnership, so on and so forth. But how do you make these projects, the metro project for instance, sustainable and viable because not just the Central Government, even the state government are physically constraint and physically strapped.
E Sreedharan: It is true, there is serious shortage of funds for the government and they expect that the fund will also come from the private party. Funds are available with the private sector but that will come only, if it is attractive for them. Now there are areas where you can't make the profitable projects. To me a metro project cannot be profitable because you have to necessarily keep the fare low; we have to keep the fare low. So that it is affordable to a common citizen, in such a situation you can't make a lot of profit out of it. We are able to run the system without depending upon somebody, that's a great thing. That is what we have achieved in Delhi Metro.
Shereen Bhan: But if it is not profitable, do you believe that perhaps its sustainability in future would come under question?
E Sreedharan: No, it will not. When I say profitability, it doesn't mean that we should be able to pay back all the investment that has been made. You will be generating sufficient surplus revenues to keep the system going. The normal operation and expenditure can be met with the revenue that is received. If we are able to do it in a public transportation, it's a great thing. Otherwise if you want to make it really a business proposition and make lot of profit then naturally the fares have got to be very high.
Shereen Bhan: What are the ideas that you would like to implement, if you had managed to get the support from bureaucracy?
E Sreedharan: You see, simple things. If you want to do a commercial project today it will take three to four years to take all the permission required for that. Now, I have been requesting that the DMRC, the Delhi Metro being a government owned company, give it the same powers, as the power giving authority have got today. For example DDA has to give certain concession; the MCD has to give certain concessions. Why not these consent be given to Delhi Metro straight away as a government organisation. If that had been given DMRC would have done wonders in this country like Hong Kong metro has done. We had to go to the court after three, four years of waiting and the court ordered these people to give permission.
Shereen Bhan: Do you believe the judiciary is really going to be the answer to break these kinds of impasse?
E Sreedharan: To some extent but that should be the last resort. You can't make judiciary run the government. You can't have judiciary for that purpose.
Shereen Bhan: I understand one of your regrets sir, in your career trying to put the Metro together, is the fact that because there is no bipartisan politics, at various state government you see, decision making changes every time, as you see the case in Chennai. We are never going to really have a uniform transport system.
E Sreedharan: In a way, it is happening. You see the public transport, particularly if it is a railway one, the government of India has control over it; the state governments have got willingly joined and formed a partnership under various schemes. Like if the state government goes; naturally the projects suffers, that is what has happened in Chennai metro.
Shereen Bhan: Do you believe it is a vested interest?
E Sreedharan: To some extent, I would say there is some vested interest, to block the schemes. Otherwise any sensible government in Tamil Nadu should have supported the metro and then asked for its expansion in a big way. They should have been after that. What has been decided is metro should stop, no further expansion of metro in Chennai, we should only go for monorails. Now this sort of policy will never work. Ultimately, it is the city that will suffer.
Shereen Bhan: Various state government are currently experimenting and have started their trysts with setting up the metro. How confident are you, that we will actually see a lot of these projects being delivered on time, with not significant cost overruns?
E Sreedharan: But in general, I would say all the state government are very keen to have the metro implemented on time and they are willing to participate as well as willing to pay the price as well. Tamil Nadu is the exception, we should not talk about that. Any other government wants to do it very fast, but they don’t get the support from the center. For example Jaipur metro, which we are handling, Delhi metro is handling Jaipur metro. Rajasthan government is so keen but even today after two years of starting the metro, the government of India has not become a partner or has not become an interested party in that metro.
Shereen Bhan: And this despite the fact that, you have Congress at the centre and the Congress in the state?
E Sreedharan: Yes. Here I find the bureaucracy has been at fault, it is not the politicians. Bureaucracy has found some ways of stalling it. It could be the Planning Commission, it could be the ministry concerned, it could be the finance ministry, they find some way or reason - why this issue can be stalled.
Shereen Bhan: You know as the man who is credited with the success of the Konkan Railway, I want to ask you about the current state of affairs of the Indian Railways and there has been a lot of talk on decentralisation and reforming the board. How disappointed and worried are you about the state of the Indian Railways?
E Sreedharan: See, these are very sensitive issues for me because I have been a railways man for 36 years.
Shereen Bhan: Which is why I am asking you?
E Sreedharan: I got so much of the loyalty for the organisation and even today it is one of the best working departments of the country. There is no doubt about it, but they have done much more. If you see the state of railways today, we are at least 25 to 30 years behind the rest of the world.
Shereen Bhan: Do you believe that whether it is the Pitroda Committee report recommendations or it is the Kakodkar Committee report recommendations which did find their way in the Railway Budget this year would be executed and implemented or do you believe that the vested interests will come into the way once again?
E Sreedharan: No! I was the part of the Kakodkar committee. The recommendation of these two committees would have changed the face of the Indian Railways. Everybody should welcome it with open hands and both the committees have also given, the way how to raise the resources. It is not that the government has raised all the money required for that. The only thing is, it's a policy decision that has to be taken, a commitment to improve the railways.
Shereen Bhan: Do you believe that the current Railway Minister will take those decision? Do you believe that Dinesh Trivedi's exit will actually put these plans on the backburner?
E Sreedharan: It will, definitely. There has been a serious setback to the Indian Railways.
Shereen Bhan: How disappointed were you on the day when Dinesh Trivedi was ask to leave?
E Sreedharan: I was terribly disappointed. You should cry for your country when these kind of situation happens.
Shereen Bhan: You always believe in Bhagwat Gita and I understand even at Delhi Metro, you give each of your employees a copy of the Bhagwat Gita. The Bhagwat Gita teaches you the 'niskaam karm yoga' and how you carry out your actions and duties without thinking about the results and success of the actions. Is that the mindset Indians have lost touch with? It’s not about the journey but the result?
E Sreedharan: Yes, you see some how in this country, there is a feeling that Bhagwat Gita is a religious text and applicable to Hindus only. It is not.The Bhagwat Gita is only an administrative gospel. How to administer things, what is the policies you should follow. How things can done properly and the mindset one should have while performing a duty and what you should expect out of your duty. It is only a simple thing and there is no religious aspect at all.
Shereen Bhan: What is the administrative principle that you have used from the Bhagwat Gita and applied to your life?
E Sreedharan: Whatever work is given to you, you should perform to the best of your capacity and don't bother about the results. And bother about any gains for yourself that is the most important thing. Bhagwat Gita always says any action is not expect a gain for your self. The word used is 'lok sangrah', means for the benefit of the society. With that attitude and mind set if you perform duty, things will be entirely different.
Shereen Bhan: You know I want to talk to you about the succession because that's an issue that most corporate, at this point of time are grappling with and you put your successor in and you sort of groomed him to take over from you. How did you go about that?
E Sreedharan: This is a very necessary step in any corporate succession plan. So I knew that one or another day I have to step down and fortunately a number of very senior and experienced officers joined me along in the Delhi metro. And they were all trained in my way of functioning. All of them have trained in the same fashion and have the same attitude and same type of performance. They want to do things best for the city, that sort of attitude is there. So I felt that after a certain time, I have been in this post for 14 years and I must step down and hand over the bat to another very deserving person. So in that process, when I wanted to step down, I was told to chose your successor. I said no, we will follow a very very transparent process of selecting the right person as my successor. And we did exactly what we did. And I am very sure that the person I chose will definitely justify his choice.
Shereen Bhan: You know you are the recipient of the lifetime achievement and that has been given to you as AIMA and it is of course a big honour. What would you regard as your biggest achievement?
E Sreedharan: I think my biggest achievement today is to bring out a sort of confidence among engineers even within themselves. These things can be done by ordinary individuals. You don't need a superman to do these sort of things, it can be done by any Indian with ordinary background. These sort of achievements, I think is my biggest achievements.
Shereen Bhan: Well and the awards will follow any way. E Sreedharan, appreciate your joining us. We wish you the very best and congratulations from everybody once again.