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MARCH 19, 2007
COVER STORY/Online Extra
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The Miracle-Worker of the Delhi Metro
How an uncommon bureaucrat personally secured foreign funding and the cooperation of government agencies to build the Indian city's subway system

Every day, for 16 hours a day, the 240 cars of the Delhi Metro roll quietly beneath the urban sprawl of India's capital. The trains are new. They arrive on time. The stations are clean. And the system is profitable, thanks in large part to the fact that the electricity that powers the system is government-subsidized. A well-run subway is a marvel even in a first-world city. In India, where public works are often models of dysfunction, it's nothing short of a miracle. The initial phase of the $2.3 billion project wrapped up in December, 2005, on budget and nearly three years ahead of schedule.

That's why, when you talk to anyone trying to build a road or a bridge or power plant in India, the Delhi Metro comes up in conversation. "When I arrived on the project, there wasn't a lot of optimism about India," says John Triplett, head of India operations for Parsons Brinkerhoff, the U.S. firm that was program manager for the metro. "Now projects are succeeding and there's a lot more optimism. India can do it." Behind the success of the Delhi Metro stands a 50-year veteran of the railways, Elattuvalapil Sreedharan.

In the 1990s, Sreedharan built the 470-mile Konkan Railway on India's western coast, the first major railway project since the British left India in 1947. Sreedharan, now 74, is an aberration among Indian bureaucrats: He enjoys breaking rules to get things done. When he set out to build an information technology park outside Delhi, the requisite permissions were slow in coming. Sreedharan simply went ahead. Completed in 2005, the IT park now is thriving and houses several high-profile Indian companies, including Genpact.

And he's fast. "We finalize deals in 24 hours," he says. He also boasts that on the metro project the average duration of major tenders was 19 days, compared with the three to nine months that is the norm. Sreedharan did three things to get the project done. First, with infrastructure projects languishing all over India for lack of funds, he went overseas, tapping the Japan Bank of International Cooperation for loans to cover 60% of the cost. By comparison, it took the city of Kolkata 22 years to build its own metro because of a paucity of funds.

Second, Sreedharan scoured the world for top companies with extensive experience in the field. Pacific Consultants International from Japan advised on the engineering matters, Korea's Rotem and Japan's Mitsubishi supplied the initial shipment of coaches, while France's Alstom led the consortium responsible for the design of the automatic train control system.

Most importantly, Sreedharan got the various Indian government agencies to work together. Initially there was a disagreement between the Delhi Metro Corp. and its partner, Indian Railways, about what kind of tracks to use. But after intense discussion, the contractors came up with a plan to assemble the metro carriages in Bangalore and roll them on Indian Railways track straight to the New Delhi metro.

The system is already helping to take the edge off Delhi's mammoth traffic and pollution problems. An average of 500,000 commuters travel underground daily instead of driving their own cars and scooters or packing into buses. As a result, authorities say, pollution levels in Delhi are down by a third, and they see no need to add to the city's fleet of 7,500 buses. Congestion has eased to where those buses now travel an average of 11 mph. That's up from around 8 mph before the metro was built—a serious achievement in a city with world-class traffic jams.

By Nandini Lakshman
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