Last Sunday's mishap on the Delhi Metro, which left six people dead, may mark a revision in the generally favourable image of its CEO.
On July 12, 2009, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan turned 77. Judged by any yardstick, the day was unusually eventful for the man who has headed Delhi Metro Rail Corporation for more than a decade. Early in the morning, he learnt of the collapse of one of the Metro bridges under construction, killing six workers including an engineer. Later in the day, he announced his resignation as DMRC's managing director, owning moral responsibility for the mishap.
The government, however, was in no mood to let Sreedharan go and requested him to take back his resignation. The second phase of the Delhi Metro project was due to be completed by the end of 2010. To have accepted his resignation at this stage could have only one consequence. The project would have floundered with no guarantee that it would meet its deadline. The following day, Sreedharan retracted his resignation and the government heaved a sigh of relief.
It was a relief because Sreedharan's reputation has spread far and wide for two personality traits. One, he is a man of rare integrity. His impeccable record in the manner in which he has discharged his responsibilities with honesty, transparency and commitment has few parallels in the country.
Two, he is inflexible on many issues. Critics and a few of his former colleagues in the Indian Railways, where he worked for about 36 years before retiring as Member (Engineering) in 1990, even describe him as obstinate.
The government became aware of this inflexibility in the early stages of the Delhi Metro project. Sreedharan, who displays the energy of a much younger man, insisted that Delhi Metro should opt for the standard gauge for its tracks, while a large body of opinion including the Indian Railways preferred broad gauge to ensure uniformity of tracks in all railway networks across the country. Sreedharan was reported to have threatened to quit if his choice for the standard gauge was not accepted.
Several rounds of hard negotiations later, Sreedharan was persuaded to accept the broad gauge for the first phase of Delhi Metro. If the government thought that was that, it was mistaken. For Sreedharan, however, the gauge controversy was by no means over. In the second phase of the project, he had his way with the introduction of the standard gauge in many sections. The consequence: Two kinds of trains will be running on the Delhi Metro network - one set on broad gauge and the other on standard gauge.
If the government has made adjustments with such inflexibility it is also because of Sreedharan's integrity and enviable track record of completing projects ahead of deadline. Starting from the reconstruction of the Pamban bridge connecting Rameshwaram to the mainland in Tamil Nadu in 1963 in 46 days against a six-month target to the construction of the Konkan railway project in difficult terrain within the scheduled seven years, Sreedharan has become a national hero in a country in which completing projects on time and keeping civil contractors in check is considered nothing short of a miracle.
It was this track record that also helped him earn the kind of autonomy and freedom of which other public sector managers could only dream. The government's decision to appoint him head of the Konkan railway project in 1990 was accompanied by the rare covenant that the authorities could not remove him before the project was complete. As a result, Sreedharan was able to change the alignment of the Konkan railway route at will, even though that meant constructing more tunnels across a relatively fragile terrain.
At the same time, there was no fear of any disruption to his tenure as the head of the Konkan railway project, though then Railway Minister C K Jaffer Sharief made no secret of his displeasure with Sreedharan on more than one occasion.
Sreedharan's appointment as the Delhi Metro head did not come with any such covenant, but by now his reputation ensured that no government would meddle with his style of operation.
His success with Delhi Metro encouraged him to propose similar Metro networks in other cities - a move that faced some criticism and resistance from powerful sections within the central government. His open battle with the Planning Commission over the Hyderabad Metro project eventually resulted in Delhi Metro withdrawing from the project in the Andhra capital.
Sreedharan had objected to the project being granted to a consortium led by Maytas Infrastructure - a firm promoted by disgraced Satyam founder Ramalinga Raju - because it proposed to pay the state government revenue, instead of taking a grant from it, based on its earnings from real estate projects along the metro route. Sreedharan had argued that the structure of the project made it a real estate play and accused the state government of altering the route to suit the private contractor.
Sreedharan also made no secret of his opposition to the urban bus corridor project proposed by IIT Delhi professor Dinesh Mohan and was vocal in his criticism when the Delhi arm of the project ran into a host of execution problems.
Indeed, he was often perceived to have made light of earlier accidents in the Delhi Metro, such as the collapse of a crane in east Delhi that crushed the occupants of a bus last year and other smaller mishaps later.
In recent months, Sreedharan appeared not to be averse to enlarging his legend of a deeply religious, honest man who had beaten the odds in public life. Indeed, such was his popularity with the media that he largely escaped censure for those accidents.
Last Sunday's mishap, however, changed all that. Even as Delhi Metro gets down to understanding what could have led to the collapse of the bridge and what other faults may have crept in other such structures, critics are pointing to possible flaws in the system that Sreedharan has created.
Did the contractors follow the design of the bridges approved by Delhi Metro? Does Delhi Metro have its own design outfit? Or are the designs also made by these contractors? Has Delhi Metro built in-house restoration expertise, needed at the time of such accidents?
The answers to these questions are yet to emerge as Sreedharan gets back to work. But it is clear that the final phase of Sreedharan's career may have to pay a lot more attention to undoing the damage caused by the accident that took place on his 77th birthday.