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  Konkan Rail in E Sreedharan’s words

The legend of Konkan railway and its architect E Sreedharan are widely enough known and GoodNewsIndia has done a major story on it.

There are good reasons why the railway is everyone’s darling. It runs close to 1000 km, rides over 8000 bridges [179 of them, major], snakes through 92 tunnels and at its highest point it runs at an elevation close to the Kutub Minar’s top.

It benefits 3 states and cuts the travel time between Mangalore and Mumbai from the earlier 41 hours to 15. To build it, land had to be acquired from 40,000 land owners and hundreds of contractors had to be co-ordinated. Yet, it was completed in 7 years.

How did Sreedharan do it in a country notorious for delays? We have now Sreedharan’s own words explaining how. In a lecture in 2001, as part of a series called ‘Ideas that worked’, organised by the Ministry of Personnel, Government of India, Sreedharan shared his experience with an audience of bureaucrats. Do not look for great prose. It is the transcript of plain words spoken by a no-nonsense, hands-on man given to ‘doing it’ rather than talking about it. But what comes through is a story of many odds and how he overcome them.

Sreedharan innovated on many fronts: financial, technical, managerial and political. He introduced many engineering technologies from the world over and adapted them well for India. Some of these like optic fibre cables are commonplace now, but were avant garde in the early 1990s. Other novel technologies went by names like gas pressure welding, incremental launching of bridge decks, ballastless tracks, tunneling and tunnel ventilation innovations. The tracks were laid for trains that would one day run at 160 kmph. Tracks are near level despite the undulating terrain.

As a manager Sreedharan delegated power right down the line. He created 7 command zones with a Chief Engineer to head each of them. Then knowing that each zone can do 120 km in five years, he commenced work in all of them simultaneously. For his hand-picked contractors, he made generous advances and prompt payments. He also made available to them imported equipment free of cost. Financially, Konkan Railway pioneered the idea of a government project funded by public bonds.

But the eye-opening parts of the lecture must be served to cynical Indians who derisively condemn all politicians and civil servants. Sreedharan interacted with several of them and got them to co-operate fully. The ministers were amenable to reason and were forthcoming with help. Only once did a political slant stall the project.

Despite all this, the project took 7 years instead of the planned 5. Why? Sreedharan says it was the “Harshad Mehta scam.  All of you are aware of it.  The entire capital market dried up.  We were not able to raise money either through taxable bonds or tax-free bonds.”

You can read the transcript at this link. There was a question and answer session that followed the lecture.