Sucheta Dalal :India's Unsung Sarkari Heroes (30 December 2002)
Sucheta Dalal

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India's Unsung Sarkari Heroes (30 December 2002)  

It was the day that the Delhi Metro was thrown open to the public. I got up at 4:30 AM, left home at 5:00 AM. It was pitch dark, fog and very cold throughout the 18 km drive to Shahdara from Noida. I reached Shahdara station at 5:35 AM to catch the excitement.”

No. I didn’t brave Delhi’s cold at that hour of the morning to witness the Metro’s historic run. But Roopesh did. He made several trips on the metro, threw in a return journey on scooter to compare commuting time and posted a 3,000-word account, which became the eyes and ears of the Delhi-Metro yahoo group that I am fortunate to be a part of.

Roopesh’s account of the exhilaration of the masses shouting Bharat Mata ki Jai was interspersed with a detailed assessment about the design and functionality of the Metro. It also had a first-hand report on teething troubles such as fare validation machines that conked out, tokens collected in buckets to cope with the rush and inadequate information displays explaining how the system worked. The story then built up to how the Delhi Metro Railway Corporation (DMRC) was slowly swamped by the crowds and finally lost control. After all, handling two lakh commuters with 12 lakh more swarming the stations requires crowd-control training, not polite sevaks. Other accounts described the confusion over issue of tickets, and the mixed-up announcements inside the train.

You would probably get some of this and more in the media. The difference is that, unlike the popular media, the yahoo groups will not forget this story after the initial hoopla. The group, comprising mainly of engineers and technically qualified people, shares information and also provides valuable inputs directly to the Delhi Metro chief — the celebrated E Sreedharan. He accesses the postings, responds to queries and provides information. Interestingly, an e-mail support group is not exclusive to the DMRC. Sreedharan’s equally illustrious successor at the Konkan Railway Corporation (KRC), B Rajaram, has a similar support group that is tirelessly working to educate and build consensus for the Skybus project.

The Skybus proposes to redefine urban mass transport with an extremely modern, air-conditioned, automated system, which follows the present road network in crowded cities with a price-structure that would beat all existing public transport. It can run at speeds up to 200 kmph, is designed to be derailment free and safer than the existing railway system and can be built at a fraction of the cost of an underground Metro. KRC’s managing director Rajaram has also run the gauntlet of making presentations to, and getting the approval of, almost every environmental and citizens group that matters. Yet, two years after his intense marketing effort, he has bagged one project from the Kerala government to set up a Rs 800 crore mass transit project at Kochi.

The yahoo groups are an example of what makes Sreedharan and Rajaram different from our run of the mill industrialists. They are using technology to keep in touch with informed supporters, build consensus, provide information, encourage debate and discussion and provide a forum for new ideas and technology. And the postings on both groups show that it is working well.

Contrast this with private sector companies even in service sectors such as consumer goods, banks and hotels. Even the biggest multinational, which claimed to harness the internet, does not have the faintest idea of how to go about it. Their communication with customers is non-existent or cumbersome and they have no forum for two-way communication between top management and users of their products.

Sreedharan and Rajaram are both proud public sector people who have made a difference despite the bureaucratic set-up in which they operate. However, while Sreedharan built his path-breaking projects (the Konkan railway and the Delhi Metro) when the public sector wasn’t so discredited, Rajaram has been struggling to get the Skybus project accepted.

State and municipal governments routinely come up with bogus questions about its viability to avoid giving it a trial despite the fact that modern and viable mass transport projects are the crying need of most Indian cities. Interestingly, even today such projects are being conceived and proposed only in the public sector but do not attract any support from self-proclaimed swadeshis. And if their financial viability has been a problem, it is mainly because of political meddling. Let us look at a few successes in the public sector.

• The Konkan Railway is acknowledged as an engineering marvel, yet it continues to be treated like a poor cousin of the railways and is running up massive losses. Also, none of the states that it connects have launched an all-out drive to encourage industrialisation along its route and to take advantage of its services. The KRC holds several international patents on systems that benefit the public. It also builds high-tech tunnels and bridges for other infrastructure projects.

• The Mumbai-Pune Expressway, which is Maharashtra’s pride and joy, happened due to the tireless effort of R C Sinha, a Maharashtra government bureaucrat who revolutionised not only the use of construction technology in India, but also the tendering and payment systems for the project. Contracts and agreements drafted by Sinha’s team at the MSRDC have now become standard agreements for infrastructure projects across the country. Most importantly, MSRDC built the Expressway at half the cost of the only private sector proposal from Reliance Industries. If anything, the Congress-NCP government has done its best to wreck the project’s viability by failing to provide the amenities, services, townships and support systems that were part of the original plan to drive traffic to the road. One of its first actions was to remove R C Sinha even before the project was completed.

• A third example is the National Stock Exchange and National Depository, which was conceived by a team of dedicated professionals who have dragged our capital market into the 21st century at breakneck speed. Yet, when they started, they weren’t given a fighting chance of succeeding because of the myth that only brokers could run bourses.

At a time when the country is focussed on selling off the public sector, let us recognise these exceptional individuals who have made a difference to society out of sheer commitment and drive and not for fat bonuses, stock options, power or profit.

-- Sucheta Dalal