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Meet five bureaucrats who show the way forward for Modi's Rs 102 trillion infra plan

Bureaucrats and officials will play a vital role in govt's latest Rs 102 trillion infrastructure plan.

Last Updated: Feb 17, 2020, 09.17 AM IST
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These bureaucrats are the real movers & shakers of India's infra plan
By G Seetharaman

It would be naive to expect an infrastructure project to be completed on time in India, leave alone ahead of schedule. Many projects take years longer than they are meant to, bogged down by litigation over land acquisition, financial woes and political mudslinging. That is why E Sreedharan’s feat was remarkable. As head of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, he had 10 yrs to commission the first 65 km, but he completed it in seven years and three months.

How did he pull it off?

“I asked the government for two things — the independence to operate with no interference from politicians and bureaucrats, and the freedom to pick my own team,” he told ET Magazine in 2011.

Ashwini Bhide, who was recently replaced as managing director of the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRCL), could have also done with a lot less political meddling. She took on those who opposed the project over the felling of trees for a metro car shed. Among her strongest critics was Shiv Sena’s Aaditya Thackeray, who demanded that she be moved out of MMRCL. Though the Shiv Sena was part of the Devendra Fadnavis government, its larger ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, backed Bhide. But within two months of the Shiv Sena forming the government with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party after the assembly polls, Bhide was shunted out. This incident highlighted the perils of helming a large infrastructure project for a civil servant.

Vinayak Chatterjee, chairman and MD of Feedback Infra, a consultancy, says these bureaucrats should be given tenure so that they do an effective job of executing projects without fear of being transferred. But given that some infrastructure projects take years, or even decades, from conception to commissioning, it would be unreasonable to expect the same person to head it for the entire length of a project, says Vijay Singhal, additional municipal commissioner of Mumbai, who is responsible for building the southern stretch of the city’s coastal road project. Furthermore, do retired civil servants have an advantage in overseeing an infrastructure project?

“They can run it far more professionally than when they were in service. They are not afraid of being posted elsewhere,” says Chatterjee. Sreedharan, for example, had retired from the Indian Railways Engineering Service when he took charge as the first MD of DMRC in 1997.

The other challenge civil servants face in these projects is that they have to deal with new and evolving issues such as large-scale land acquisition, complex engineering problems, litigation and ecological threats. Nevertheless, such bureaucrats and officials play a vital role in effectively executing infrastructure projects. Their roles deserve special focus especially with the Centre recently announcing an investment of Rs 102 trillion in infrastructure over the next five years, with just over a fifth of that coming from the private sector.

Engineer of Financial Solutions
By Shantanu Nandan Sharma

Between 1987 and 1992, Anurag Sachan spent most of his time travelling about in a soft-topped jeep in the jungles of Odisha. Then a railway civil engineer mandated to supervise the construction of the 165 km Koraput-Rayagada track passing through the forests of the Eastern Ghats, Sachan had to negotiate challenges that were largely limited to his domain knowledge: civil engineering. Today, Sachan’s worries go beyond earthwork and bridges.

As the head of the Rs 81,000 crore Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation (DFCC), Sachan coordinates with district magistrates on issues concerning last-mile land acquisition and also with superintendents of police on law and order issues. He has taken it upon himself to ensure the timely completion of the corridor — a rare linear project in independent India that passes through nine states, 62 districts and 21,000 villages. It warrants the acquisition of over 11,000 hectares for railway tracks.

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Barring the last 1% of the land required — spread across Mumbai city and Uttar Pradesh’s Greater Noida — the rest has been acquired so far, costing the railways Rs 20,000 crore. The DFC comprises two sectors — the 1,504 route-km Dadri (UP)-Mumbai western corridor and the 1,856 route-km Ludhiana-Kolkata eastern stretch. At present, trials are on for 500 km across both lines.

Sachan is confident that by March, 990 km will be operational. The project, which began in 2007, was supposed to be completed last year. But the deadline has been reset to December 2021. Sachan, an officer of the Indian Railway Service of Engineers, was brought in to head the DFC in December 2018. After becoming the MD of the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation, he has been facing macroeconomic hurdles more than engineering ones.

“The newest challenge is a shortage of working capital among our contractors mainly due to the overall economic slowdown. Banks are tightening their purse strings. We are releasing all dues to maintain the cash flow of the contractors,” he says, adding that he has at times advanced payments, exercising some rarely used legal provisions.

“I want the project to be completed by December 2021, no matter what.” So far, Rs 55,000 crore has been spent on the project. The pressure to complete the DFC as soon as possible is understandable. It would consume 70% of freight traffic in the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata routes, expedite freight movement and help the railways implement its dream project of introducing 150 private trains.


Track Finder
By G Seetharaman

Thirteen years under four chief ministers of two states. That is how long NVS Reddy has been heading Hyderabad Metro Rail Ltd (HMRL). The 63-year-old is the exception to the norm that a bureaucrat rarely gets to oversee a large infrastructure project from the drawing board to completion, particularly when the project has to overcome as many hurdles as this one.

Larsen & Toubro had taken over the construction and operation of the metro lines in 2010 from Maytas Infra after the latter’s promoter Ramalinga Raju confessed to cooking the books of Satyam Computer Services, also started by Raju, and trying to get Satyam to buy Maytas. The project has since been the subject of 370 court cases, mainly on account of land acquisition and right of way. HMRL had to acquire nearly 270 acres, a Herculean task in a big city like Hyderabad.

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“Stanford or MIT can’t teach you how to execute an infrastructure project in India,” says Reddy, a 1982-batch officer of the Indian Railway Accounts Service who retired in mid-2016. Those who opposed the project protested and burnt Reddy’s effigy. As a result, he now has an armed guard accompanying him wherever he goes. One of the trickiest parts of the job was to find a way around 20 religious structures. If the structure in question was a temple, he would send one of his staff members who was a devout Hindu to lead the negotiations with the temple authorities. If he had to deal with a mosque, he would put his Muslim chief engineer on the job.

“Only 35% of my challenges are to do with engineering. The rest are socio-economic,” says Reddy, who holds an MA in political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Originally slated to be completed by 2017, the Rs 21,000 crore project saw the first 30 km becoming operational in 2018 and 28 km the following year. Another 11 km was commissioned recently.

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HMRL is yet take a call on the remaining 3 km. Besides land acquisition, the carving out of Telangana from Andhra Pradesh in 2014 also slowed things down. The obstacles Reddy faces are not just on the ground.

“There is a perception that whatever the private sector does is wrong. I think like a private sector guy. Unfortunately, the best thing we know in bureaucracy is to push a file up or down.”

He also claims to have faced some initial resistance from state government officials as he did not belong to the Indian Administrative Service. With phase-I of the project nearly complete, Reddy has an even bigger challenge as the private sector’s interest in the metro expansion projects has subdued. But his experience in managing the first leg of the project certainly stands him in good stead.

Of Birds & Bridges
By G Seetharaman

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Looking at the towers of the cable-stayed Bandra-Worli Sea Link from his office at Bandra Kurla Complex, RA Rajeev, metropolitan commissioner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, laments the missed opportunity in adding aesthetic elements to the 22-km Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL), connecting Mumbai and Navi Mumbai. In response to concerns from environmentalists over a possible obstruction in the flight path of flamingoes, the trans harbour bridge was designed without towers or arches.

“In India, unfortunately, there is no beauty in infrastructure. When you create something for posterity, you should bring in some aesthetics,” he says, adding the flamingoes’ path was not disturbed by the construction. MTHL was originally conceived in the 1960s and has been attempted three times since 2006.

The Rs 17,840 crore bridge, developed by Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), is being constructed by two joint ventures, one between Larsen & Toubro and Japan’s IHI Infrastructure Systems and the other between Tata Projects and South Korea’s Daewoo Engineering and Construction. Work on the bridge, 80% of which is funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, began in March 2018 and is scheduled to be finished by September 2022. Once completed, MTHL is estimated to see daily traffic of 70,000 vehicles. The bridge involves 10,000 precast elements or blocks.

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“No two elements are the same. That is the kind of precision required for the project,” says Rajeev, who was previously principal secretary of expenditure in the department of finance in Maharashtra. Engineering challenges aside, MTHL has necessitated the removal of encroachers in Navi Mumbai and land acquisition from the Mumbai Port Trust.

Rajeev says his experience in finance, urban development and environment ministries is coming in handy. “The engineering aspect is taken care of. What is required is an outside view of the project. You do management by exception; you intervene only when there is a problem.”

MMRDA is executing projects worth Rs 1.5 trillion, including over 300 km of metro lines. There have been sporadic attempts to ease the commuting woes of Mumbaikars but the next five years will be crucial in making substantive changes to the city’s infrastructure. MTHL is one of the most closely watched projects.

Pivotal Learnings
By Shantanu Nandan Sharma

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Mangu Singh had big shoes to fill when he entered Metro Bhawan in Delhi on December 31, 2011. E Sreedharan, widely known as the nation’s metro man, was retiring as the managing director of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) after a glorious 14-year stint that included building 190 km of metro line in the capital. Singh was the replacement.

A former railway engineer just like Sreedharan, Singh went on to prove that metro rail could be constructed faster. His team added another 190 km under phase-III in just seven years (2012-19). The target now is phase-IV that involves constructing 104 km of tracks for Rs 34,580 crore.

Under Singh, DMRC engineers also built 10 km of Jaipur Metro and 25 km in Kochi Metro. It should come as no surprise then that Singh, 64, has been given an extension till December 2020. Delhi Metro is a rarity among India’s core sector project execution as it has had only two bosses in over two decades. Singh was part of Sreedharan’s core team from 1997, when DMRC was set up.

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“The top man needs to continue till a project gets completed,” Singh says. Building a metro system is all about learning from experiences, adhering to strict work discipline and adopting new technology, he says. Before DMRC, Singh was part of India’s first metro project — the Kolkata Metro, the only metro controlled by Indian Railways. But that project took 25 years to build just 16 km.

The construction also caused unprecedented chaos on the roads, uprooted sewerage and water lines and brought down buildings accidentally. “Everything that could go wrong went wrong. It was a big lesson,” he says. Many initiatives by DMRC — such as not allowing construction of labour huts along the worksite as well as introducing better lighting system and multiple U-turns under flyovers — were the outcome of the learnings from Kolkata. Besides running the 389-km network, DMRC is also planning to add 104 km. But it also has to deal with coaches and tracks that are now 15 years old and require more maintenance. One big challenge was land acquisition under the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, which has no provision to acquire land on a priority basis.

“But we overcame that. Under the new law, compensation is lucrative, and we turned it to our advantage by directly approaching the landowners,” he says. Singh, a civil engineer from IIT-Roorkee, also seems to have found a way to handle the pressure that comes from heading a company equally owned by the Government of India and the Government of Delhi.

“There is no political pressure on us. At times, yes, we have been tested. But we have withstood it. The situation is the same as it was during Sreedharan’s time,” he clarifies. But doesn’t he get upset when asked to shut down metro stations to stonewall protests?

“It is a tricky situation. As an operator, we don’t want to close stations. It causes inconvenience to our commuters. But at the same time, we can’t go against the advice of any security agency. We have, however, made it amply clear that such a decision needs to be taken at the top level of the agency concerned,” he adds.


Path to Future
By G Seetharaman

Radheshyam Mopalwar had his task cut out at the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation. The day he took charge as its vice-chairman and managing director in September 2015, he floated a tender for a pre-feasibility study of a 701-km expressway from Nagpur to Mumbai, announced just over a month earlier by the then Maharashtra chief minister, Devendra Fadnavis, who hails from Nagpur. This was going to be a mammoth exercise, with the total land to be acquired around 20,000 acres — and 85% of it from private owners in 392 villages in 10 districts. So MSRDC could not afford to leave the acquisition to the revenue department, as is done usually.

“We functioned as a backoffice of collectors and provided logistical support with vehicles, land surveys, demarcation. We provided them with manpower,” says 62-year-old Mopalwar, who retired as MD of Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) in 2018 but has since been given two extensions. Beyond the logistical challenges of surveying land and up-dating land records, MSRDC had to convince 22,000 families to part with their properties. So it appointed 350 communicators who held over 3,000 meetings with landowners.

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“The biggest surprise was that the opposition in the media was not seen on the ground. There was resistance from people whose land was not acquired,” says Mopalwar, who was previously divisional commissioner of the Konkan division. He was sent on leave in August 2017 over graft allegations. But a government-appointed panel cleared his name and he was reinstated four months later.

The land acquisition for the Rs 55,000 crore project, also called the Samruddhi Corridor, was completed in a year and construction began last year. The expressway will be operational in December 2021, except for a short stretch in the Thane portion, which will be commissioned by June 2022. The expressway will halve the journey time between Mumbai and Nagpur to eight hours. Since a 22-km stretch of the expressway passes through a wildlife corridor near two sanctuaries, MSRDC decided to partner with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) to make the road animal-friendly.

“We accepted whatever WII recommended. We are building overpasses at some places and underpasses at others. They have also suggested we put up noise barriers.” The Samruddhi Corridor is more than seven times as long as the Mumbai-Pune expressway and more than twice as long as the one connecting Agra and Lucknow. If commissioned on time, it could serve as a benchmark for future projects.
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