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Delhi Metro showcases public sector success

Reuters

Posted: Apr 13, 2007 at 1325 hrs IST

Metres below the rickshaws, hawkers and crowds of Delhi, a parallel world of air-conditioned calm, marble-lined floors and punctual trains showcases how India's crucial infrastructure can get built.

Modern trains quietly arrive at stations to calm announcers. No tea or food sellers ply the platform. Elevators feature sari meshes to stop the flowing robes from getting caught in the gap, all in sharp contrast to India's mostly chaotic railway stations.

Worries over India's infrastructure shortcomings have reached a crescendo in the last months as signs of an overheating economy and supply bottlenecks from unfinished highways to packed ports have many thinking an economic boom could be short-lived.

But Delhi's Metro, whose first central phase was officially finished a few months ago, has shown what the public sector can achieve.

While not the only state project that has worked in India, the fact such a high profile project was completed on time and within budget has made it a national showcase, earning visits from business students as far away as Harvard to study its success.

"The Delhi Metro is a stunning example of how a government project can be done properly," Delhi Metro Rail Corporation managing director Elattuvalapil Sreedharan, a 74-year-old, yoga-practicing civil engineer, said.

"It's been a good example for the politicians of what the professionals can do if they are given a free hand."

The prestige of a metro in the capital led the government to appoint a manager with an impressive record with full powers to hire people, decide on tenders and control funds--a feat rarely repeated in India where graft and red tape slow many projects.

Sreedharan's success in this city of 14 million people has led authorities to look at metros across India, including the technology hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Some 600,000 commuters already use the metro daily, cutting road traffic and helping reduce Delhi's pollution by a third.

"The metro has cut my travel time by almost 75 percent. Earlier I travelled from home by bus, which cost me Rs 80. Now I pay only Rs 14," said Arpana, a commuter, as she hurried for a train.

HERO STATUS

It was all an unlikely success.

A previous attempt at a metro in Kolkata ended with less than 20 km of line built in 23 years--and 12 times over budget. The failure was blamed on political meddling, technical problems and bureaucratic delays.

With the public sector's reputation so tainted, Sreedharan has attained almost hero-like status. Surveys show he is one of India's most respected figures.

He gets embarrassed when Indians he meets have even bent to touch his feet in a sign of respect.

Sreedharan has introduced yoga and distributed copies of the ancient Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita to boost mental discipline of employees and discourage corruption. Religious Hindu music is piped into his office's elevators.

Sreedharan had already gained a reputation by building Konkan railway, the biggest railway project since independence in 1947.

But some are sceptical how much India can escape the corruption that stymies other infrastructure projects.

Sreedharan is also unhappy at new metros being planned, saying there are tell-tale signs of political meddling.

"Why can't the government just create clones of Mr Sreedharan?," said Anantha Nageswaran, head of investment research at Bank Julius Baer in Singapore.

"The success of the metro underscores the point that this is exceptional and cannot be done in a sustainable, day-in and day-out basis in India," he added.

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