INTERVIEW | Kerala a glass house. Looks nice from outside, but nothing inside: E Sreedharan
Straightforward and down to earth, Sreedharan minces no words while talking about Kerala’s politics, politicians and development.
Published: 26th March 2023 05:54 AM | Last Updated: 26th March 2023 03:48 PM | A+A A-
E Sreedharan, ‘Metro Man’ as he is popularly known, has always been a model technocrat. When he joined BJP in 2021 during the assembly elections, it raised quite a few eyebrows here. A member of the BJP national executive, Sreedharan insists that change is inevitable in Kerala. Straightforward and down to earth, Sreedharan minces no words while talking about Kerala’s politics, politicians and development.
Excerpts from an interview:
The National Highway development is progressing at a brisk pace in Kerala. It’s a long-delayed project. What’s your take?
Kerala has been lagging in road development. Now the work has started because of sheer compulsion. The Centre has worked out a new formula to ensure that development happens without any trouble. Usually, for national highways, the land has to be acquired fully by the state government.
As Kerala was reluctant to bear the expense, it has now been agreed that only one-third of the cost of land acquisition will be borne by the state. But, I am worried about the indiscriminate tree cutting. I wrote to Nitin Gadkari saying this is not right. If you are cutting down trees, you should start compensatory afforestation. The minister has taken this seriously. He has sent the letter to the NHAI chairman and it will come out as a policy decision.
It must be a challenge to build such roads in a densely populated state like Kerala.
No, it is not, because people are willingly handing over land. NHAI is very generous in providing compensation.
Do you think this project can solve Kerala’s mobility issues?
Highway alone will not solve transportation problems. It has to be supplemented with rail traffic. Augmenting the railway network will help control pollution and avoid accidents. Kerala is losing around 5,000 lives on the roads every year. The railway has to be given the same importance as road development.
Is railway development happening in Kerala?
It is not happening, because the entire effort and attention of the state government were on K-Rail. The concept of K-Rail is excellent and it is required. We need a very fast mode of rail traffic from north to south.
I prepared a detailed project report on the high-speed railway line from Kannur to Thiruvananthapuram. When this government took over, they said it is very costly and time-consuming. My proposal was to develop an elevated or underground line. That wasn’t accepted. They proposed a semi-high-speed project, but finally, nothing has come out. It is a great loss for the state.
What does Kerala need in terms of rail infrastructure?
In Kerala, we have two rail requirements. One is an end-to-end fast mode of travel where people from Kannur can reach Thiruvananthapuram in three to four hours. It is inevitable. If you go for a technically sound proposal, it can be done at the same cost that the government is willing to spend on K-Rail. The second requirement is for short-distance travel. We need more commuter trains during morning and evening hours.
I prepared a project report in 2007. But, the Railways took a stand that it has no capacity to operate more trains, which is true. But we can change that at a very low cost. Fortunately, the existing routes are fully doubled and electrified. We should introduce an automatic signalling system. We need more MEMU trains. The expenditure for upgrading will be Rs 8,500 crore. We can also get trains with private investment.
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You said Kerala needs a high-speed rail. Who should operate it, Railways or the state government?
Actually, a high-speed or semi-high-speed train does not come under the category of a normal train. The rolling stock, signalling everything is different. The state government may contribute if necessary, but it has to be a railway project. Ultimately, it will become a part of a national network.
The criticism against SilverLine was that it will divide Kerala into two and cause waterlogging.
Absolutely. If you put a semi-high-speed line on the ground, you have to cordon it off completely. They were planning to construct walls on either side. I pointed out that the state will be divided into East Kerala and West Kerala. When this point was raised they said flyovers will be provided with every half a km. But what about the cost? Even then it will affect the drainage. In Kerala, the drainage is from east to west and you are constructing a China wall.
BJP has been saying that the Vande Bharat Express service will be extended to Kerala. Is it possible with the existing infrastructure?
It is possible to operate but we will not get the benefit of Vande Bharat. The existing track can handle a speed of 80 to 100kmph. It doesn’t make sense to operate a Vande Bharat train with a potential speed of 160kmph at a speed of 90kmph.
What is the investment needed to upgrade the tracks?
The investment will be huge. All curves will have to be realigned and we need to acquire land. We have to consider the traffic also. We cannot stop the trains. It will take at least 10 years to realign the curves. But, within six to seven years, we can build a high-speed train project.
Which one do you favour? Semi-high-speed or high-speed?
It has to be high-speed. A high-speed network is being developed across the country. We will have to connect with it. We should be able to operate high-speed trains up to Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Chennai.
You were involved in the construction of Kochi Metro. Where should it be expanded next?
The second phase of Kakkanad should happen. The next one should be to Fort Kochi. The airport connection doesn’t make sense. In Delhi, there is an airport line that is running at a loss, though 67,000 people use it every day. Kochi will not get the kind of metro traffic Delhi has even after 30 years.
Do you think Kochi Metro has served the purpose? The city’s road traffic has increased despite having a metro.
The problem with the Kochi Metro is high ticket rates. The metro fare should not be more than one-and-a-half times that of road transport. And, you must build the network fast for it to have an impact on road traffic. No country in the world expects the metro to make a profit except India. It is a wrong policy. Metro is a social necessity.
There is still no clarity on the type of metro suitable for Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode. What’s your suggestion?
It has to be a light metro because it is cheaper. Light metro can serve these cities for the next 50 years. It is fast and more trains can be operated.
Kochi Metro has huge stations. Do you think these massive structures were necessary?
No. That was not our plan. Our plan was simple and functional stations that can be expanded in the future. KMRL did not agree and engaged a group of architects. Now half the stations are empty. This is very sad. Our job was only to build the metro. We were not involved in the operation, ticket pricing or commercial utilisation of space.
Do you think the Kochi Metro is being managed well?
Right from the beginning, the management was not good. Initially, they didn’t want the work to be handed over to DMRC. While we wanted the project to be completed in a simple way, they wanted it to be grand. DMRC had its own organisation and was responsible for everything during the construction, from design to procurement.
Parallely, KMRL too had a huge organisation that was needless. They had appointed many directors who were simply sitting and watching. There was overspending. A typical case is the acquisition of the Seematti land. The owner was willing to hand over the land free of cost, in exchange for allowing parking underneath. That was not agreed and we were forced to spend about Rs 20 crore to acquire the land.
There has been a delay in starting the second phase of work.
Nothing is happening. They don’t realise how much money they are losing if the project is delayed even by one day. When we were implementing the Delhi Metro, I made a calculation and found out that a delay of one day was costing us Rs 1.5 crore by way of loss on ticket revenue and interest on the loan. Here phase II has been delayed by two years.
KMRL says they haven’t got the Centre’s approval.
If you want approval, somebody should go and work for it. I started work on the third line of the Delhi Metro without approval which came only four months before its inauguration. If they wanted KMRL to be financially successful, they wouldn’t have allowed such a delay.
If you were managing Kochi Metro, what would you do to cut losses?
I will reduce the tariff by at least 30%. Let more people travel. For Metro to be financially successful, the thumb rule is at least 1 lakh passengers per line. We have to reduce the operating cost. They have so many staff and have sublet so many things. They have handed over recruitment to Kudumbashree, which is simply sucking KMRL.
The Kochi Water Metro project has also been delayed.
It is an excellent project. The project was ready for launch six months ago. They are waiting for somebody to inaugurate. We got one line of Delhi Metro inaugurated by a senior employee. We did not wait for the PM or CM. You should consider the money you are losing each day by delaying the launch. Ten boats purchased have been lying idle.
It is heard the project is waiting for the Prime Minister.
Why is the PM required to inaugurate it? The PM will definitely appreciate it if it is inaugurated in time.
What’s your take on the Brahmapuram fire?
It is a man-made catastrophe. Years of negligence led to the present state of affairs. There is no point in blaming the Kochi corporation. This is the failure of the government. I don’t blame even the politicians for this. It is the bureaucracy that failed.
The Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro were challenging projects. Which was a bigger challenge?
Konkan Railway. Mainly because when the project was started, the government did not have the confidence. It was a difficult terrain and funding was a big issue.
I told the then railway minister George Fernandes that if you wait for the money to come only from the Railways and the Centre, the project cannot be completed in 25 years. It was built on a new funding model. The government gave only one-third of the project cost and the rest was borrowed from the market.
Do politicians in Kerala have a vision of development?
We are lacking in sectors where investments and improvements are necessary. There is a feeling that Kerala is a very advanced state because the social indices say so. Kerala is advanced only because of the money flowing in from West Asia.
People are working hard in foreign countries and sending Rs 80,000 crore per year. Kerala has nothing to boast of otherwise. We import every food item. Kerala is a glass house. It looks very nice and bright from the outside. Inside we have nothing.
Two political fronts have ruled the state for the past 70 years. Do you foresee any change?
A change is inevitable. People are fed up with both LDF and UDF. So, an alternative should come. I am not talking as a BJP man.
But, BJP has not been able to rise up to the occasion and make use of the opportunity. What is lacking?
We have diagnosed what is wrong and what needs to be done. I am very confident that we will be able to get over all these things. BJP will mend ways. Somehow, people think that BJP means RSS. And what is wrong with RSS? They are people who love the country and are prepared to do anything for the country. There are certain ideological theories that people in Kerala don’t want to abandon. But, it will change.
During the 2021 assembly election, the BJP state president claimed the party will win 35 seats. But it lost even the only seat it had. Was there any problem with the strategy?
All the problems with the strategy and campaign will be rectified.
You were expected to win but lost narrowly. What happened?
LDF and UDF joined hands wherever they thought BJP would win. That is a simple truth. They had identified the places. Otherwise, why would Suresh Gopi lose? In Palakkad, I knew there was a clear understanding. I was cautioned by the media that there is an understanding.
Don’t you think it will happen again?
It will happen again and we will have to find a way out.
Do you have a vision for the development of Kerala if BJP comes to power?
Definitely. When I contested from Palakkad, I had given a clear vision of what I will do in Palakkad. The biggest problem in Kerala today is the lack of employment. The standard of education is also very low. This needs to change.
Do you think the Pinarayi government has a vision for Kerala?
They have only one vision and that is to turn Kerala into a communist state. Otherwise, show me one good infrastructure project they have started and completed during the past seven years. On the other hand, I can show you a dozen good projects meant for the people they have stalled and blocked.
You had a very good equation with Pinarayi Vijayan at one point of time. So, what happened?
All know what happened. I don’t want to talk about it. But, I am very confident that if I want I will get an appointment any time. He has got a soft corner for me.
If he calls you for advice, will you give?
If he calls me, I will give advice that is good for the state. Otherwise, why should I take up the Palarivattom bridge reconstruction? I distanced from him after he stalled the Nilambur-Nanjangud railway line, the Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode Metros, and a couple of other projects. But for the Palarivattom bridge, he sent out a message. I went and got it done without charging a penny.
What happened to the Nilambur-Nanjangud railway project?
It was sabotaged to push through the Thalassery-Mysuru rail line. The Nilambur project was cleared by the railway ministry in 2013. The then UDF government had engaged the DMRC for undertaking surveys and sanctioned Rs 6 crore for the work. The LDF government stopped the survey and took back the money. Ultimately, we lost both projects.
What is your role in BJP now?
I am a member of its national executive. I am a special invitee. In the state also they invite me to important meetings. They are very considerate. Most of the time they come here for advice.
What kind of advice do you give?
I give suggestions on how the party should function and what needs to be done. We were able to stop the K-Rail project only because of my efforts. The CM had mentioned that one great man went and stopped it. I was not against the project. I had written to the CM supporting the high-speed railway line but pleaded with him not to go ahead with it in the present form.
Why do you think the government insisted on the project?
With all due respect to the CM, I would say that he was misguided by the people around him. Officials did not brief him properly on the problems and how to address them.
When Pinarayi Vijayan came to power in 2016, he was hailed as a development man. Where do you think he has faltered?
Once you become chief minister you should be a statesman, not a party man. People, when they assume power, should cease to be politicians. They should think about what is good for the state, not what is good for the party. We had excellent communist chief ministers like C Achutha Menon and E K Nayanar. I remember my meeting with Nayanar for Konkan Railway.
The project does not touch Kerala, but I wanted Kerala to be a shareholder and contribute money because it benefitted the state. George Fernandes sent me to meet Nayanar. I explained the project and its advantages. He sanctioned the contribution immediately without consulting anyone. That’s statesmanship.
There is a feeling that the Union government is antagonistic to Kerala.
Let them show one instance where the Centre discriminated against Kerala. In fact, Kerala has got better treatment in many areas.
Then why are BJP leaders taking potshots at Kerala?
They are only pointing out things that are done here.
Do you think there’s something wrong with the state of affairs in India? People are talking about the raising intolerance and the nation losing its secular character.
There is nothing wrong. See the way the image of the country has changed in the whole world. Everybody respects us. Allegations are part of wrong propaganda. Where is intolerance and how is secularism lost? I don’t think the country has ever been ruled in such an excellent fashion since Independence. But, a little more could have been done.
Will you contest the election again?
No. Because of the age. My children won’t allow me to contest.