The Republic Day awards this time had sprang a surprise, at least for this reporter who has been writing on railway topics for many years, because among the Padma Vibhushan awardees was an eminent railway builder, Dr. E. Sreedharan, Managing Director of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC).
This was a unique award for a Railway engineer because probably no other railwayman has been honoured this way; not even Engineer Karnail Singh, who had built the Assam link railway line within less than two years from January 27, 1948 to November 9, 1949 although the then Prime Minister and the then Home Minister, Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel respectively, had given him two full years to complete the line which had established rail connectivity between the north-eastern area and the rest of India after the Partition on August 15, 1947.
Born on June 12, 1932 in a remote village in the Palghat (now Palakkad) district of Kerala, Mr. Sreedharan had obtained his B.E. degree in civil engineering from the Kerala Polytechnic, Kozhikode and had joined the Indian Railway Service of (Civil) Engineers in 1954. He was involved in the construction of the metre gauge Ernakulam-Quilon line under the leadership of another outstanding railway engineer from Kerala, G.P. Warrier, who had become the Chairman of the Railway Board in the late 1970s.
Er. Sreedharan's real test as civil engineer with the Railways came in the construction of the Mangaore-Hassan metre gauge line which includes the hazardous ghat section between Sakaleshpur and Subramaniam Road in southern Karnataka. This line has now been converted into broad gauge just as the Quilon-Ernakulam line was several decades ago.
Engineer Sreedharan'scrowning glory, as it were, had come in 1964 when he was put in charge of restoration of the 2.06 kilometre bridge across the Pamban Channel at the southern tip of India. Since this area is in the news these days because of the controversy regarding the Sethusamudram Ship Canal Project.
The line was first constructed
The line was laid on a viaduct (bridge) which had a length of 6777 feet, and it had 147 spans with openings; 143 with openings of 40 feet each, one of 43 feet, one of 44 feet and one with 289 feet. This large opening was meant for fixing the Schezer Rolling Lift Bridge, an engineering marvel of those days, which could be opened to let ships pass through the bridge. This opening caters for ships which are 200 feet wide and 14 feet deep. Traffic on the bridge, of course, had to be suspended when the rolling lift bridge would be opened in order to let ships pass. A steamer service between Dhanuskodi and Talaimanar was started from the day the bridge was opened to traffic on February 24, 1914. This formidable bridge was almost destroyed with 125 of the 147 spans damaged in the severe cyclonic storm which had hit the island on the night of December 23/24, 1964. That day, a metre gauge train plying on the line beyond Pamban station to Dhanuskodi via Rameshwaram station was blown off along with the locomotive, passengers and crew into the sea.
The Scezer bridge too was extensively damaged and the Southern Railway authorities asked Engineer Sreedharan to put the bridge and the line back in operation giving him six months to complete the task. Sreedharan, then only 32 years of age, completed the task in just 46 days!
After an eventful career, when Sreedharan was about to retire in June 1990 as Member, Engineering, Railway Board, a proposal was made to him to head the Konkan Railway Corporation Limited (KRCL), a joint venture of the Railway Board and the state governments of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala for building the 837-kilometre-long Konkan Railway from Roha in Maharashtra to Kankanadi in Karnataka.
The first thing Engineer Sreedharan did after taking over was to undertake a fresh survey of the alignment which could cut off 77 kilometres from the previous length and fixed it at 760 kilometres from Roha to Kankanadi.
The story of building this line is well known. However, one has to recall the fact that KRCL had to be incorporated as the Planning Commission was not in favour of sanctioning the project as it could not generate, it was felt, enough revenue in return for the more than Rs.1000 crore to be invested in this project. So Railway Minister George Fernandes and Finance Minister Madhu Dandwate, both of whom came from the Konkan areas had made this proposal which was readily agreed to by the four states including Kerala, even though the Konkan Railway would not touch this state. This was because Kerala would be a future beneficiary of the new line.
KRCL also had to raise money from the market to finance the truly high tech line and on one occasion, Mr. Sreedharan was able to raise Rs. 400 crore from the market without any colaterals, because the people had faith in him and the new line.
The Konkan line is still not a profit-making venture and is still not part of the Indian Railways system, but it has started making operational profits and Indian Railways, the guarantor for the loans, pays the dues whenever required.
Mr. Sreedharan does not get to the Press unnecessarily but when opponents of the proposed alignment through Goa raised the issue of the destruction of a ?three-thousand-year-old culture? if the proposed alignment was not changed, he issued a press statement asking ?what culture?? That was the end of the activists? opposition to the alignment but what is more relevant is that when this issue was brought before the Bombay High Court'sPanaji bench it had dismissed the plea.
The Konkan Railway was inaugurated on January 26, 1998 in the absence of any VIP because it was election time for the Lok Sabha. On May 1 that year, then Prime Minister Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee had formally inaugurated the line at Ratnagiri station.
Mr. Sreedharan had by then left Konkan Railway and was looking for a retired life when the government recalled his services and made him Chairman and Managing Director of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation. Witnessing the unbelievable progress made by the DMRC, several cities of India and even some foreign countries have sought Er. Sreedharan'sservices for starting metro systems in their areas.