E Sreedharan, popularly known as India’s “Metro Man", who recently quit active politics stating that he was more of a bureaucrat than a politician, looks at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eight-year rule with an analytical eye.
While he lauds the PM for initiatives like Swachh Bharat and Atmanirbhar Bharat, the abrogation of Article 370 sections in Jammu and Kashmir, he also expresses his utter disappointment at the way the country’s railway system has been “mishandled”.
Hailing from Kerala, the 90-year-old technocrat joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in February 2021 and contested for Kerala’s Palakkad assembly constituency but lost the election.
Sreedharan feels that while Modi has delivered in the areas of sanitation, education, housing, water, and electricity facilities, the government has failed in handling the country’s largest locomotive network — the Railways.
“He is the best Prime Minister India has had since our Independence,” said Sreedharan to News18. “I will give you reasons why I think so. The most important reason I give him credit is for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Initiative). His work on providing 10 crore toilets constructed in the country has been marvellous. Next comes his initiative of Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India) where he has reduced our imports of several items including defence-related products.”
Speaking about India’s defence strategy, Sreedharan is all praise for the way in which the country has handled the Chinese incursion as well as kept all the borders safe. He also appreciated how the country has brought its defence imports to a minimum. Sreedharan feels that PM Modi has truly managed to make India self-sufficient during his tenure.
“There was a time when we would be importing rice and wheat from across the world. Modiji has now made the country self-reliant and today we are exporting wheat and rice,” Sreedharan said. “PM Modi has brought many changes, but there has been no single serious allegation of corruption against him to date.”
The technocrat also emphasised that Modi’s welfare schemes in the last eight years reflect the same.
“In terms of statistics, nine crore poor women were given free LPG, three crore houses have been built, 2.5 crore homes have been electrified, six crore houses have been provided drinking water connections — all this with government money,” said the bureaucrat who has based himself in his native Ponnani in Kerala.
Emphasising on how the National Education Policy (NEP) is well-thought-out for the future generations in this country, Sreedharan is also disappointed that many state governments have refused to adopt it.
“This policy will bring home to all children the greatness and historical legacy of our great nation, the ethics and principles that we have followed through the years, all will be taught through this new policy,” he told News18. “Modi’s crowning achievement has been the unification of Jammu and Kashmir with mother India. Nobody had been able to do it, but Modi did it with a firm hand.”
Speaking about how India fared during the pandemic, Sreedharan feels that India’s performance was fantastic and well-planned. “The government was able to provide free vaccinations to all and free ration to the BPL families for two full years and it is expected to continue up to October this year,” he said. “These are the great achievements of this great man, but I will not say all kudos to him. There are certain things that I am not happy with and that he could have done much more.”
Sreedharan said that when Narendra Modi came to power, his election manifesto said there would be more governance and less government, but even today the role of the government is huge.
“One simple example of this would be the Dearness Allowance that is given to government employees every six months. The DA increase itself costs the country Rs 7,000 crore, an amount with which I can build two Metro (railways) in two different cities. I had pointed out to the PM that the DA was a huge financial burden on the government and if curtailed will reduce the burden by 35 per cent. PM Modi has not gone into that area at all,” he says regretfully.
“Another disappointing aspect is that the country has not been able to control inflation. Officially it may be six to seven per cent, but in reality, it is much more. If countries like Japan and Germany are able to keep it under one per cent, then what stops us? The rupee has no value outside India and we are spending more than we can afford. Clearly, our economists have not been guiding/advising our PM correctly.”
One issue that Sreedharan feels the government could have put its efforts into is the way it has handled the issue of solid waste management in the country.
“We may have done well with Swachh Bharat and building toilets, but what about solid waste? Our rivers and lakes are all polluted and we should be ashamed of what we have done to our waterbodies,” he said.
Coming to the aspect that he feels most disappointed by as India’s “Metro Man” is the state of the country’s railway system. Sreedharan said that India can be very proud of its railway technical excellence, but it has now been taken away.
“The technical trust that we had in the railways is lost because of combining all the departments of recruitment and training and creating the Indian railway management and services. We have the best electrical engineers, and civil engineers; all that will be lost now by bringing them under Indian railway services. It was a wrong move," he said.
He feels the Railways has been emasculated and lays the blame on the railway ministers who bungled it. Restructuring the Railway Board, abolishing the railway special budget, and trimming its strength has affected the system at large, he says.
According to Sreedharan, the dedicated freight corridor which has been on the anvil since 2008 is nothing but a “foolish venture”.
“I had cautioned the Railways in 2008 that instead of making it a freight corridor, we should convert it into a dedicated high-speed passenger line as there are not enough freight trains running. Today, the freight corridor is still incomplete, but if at all it is completed, it will turn out to be a huge white elephant for the country. Freight traffic is reaching a plateau and it would be of no use to have this corridor. The road system is taking more and more freight,” he said.
Sreedharan expressed his unhappiness at the long delay in the work to build a railway line between Katra and Banihal in Jammu and Kashmir. He is of the opinion that the plan adopted by the railway department is “totally wrong, unstable, very expensive and unreliable”.
“I had suggested after the high court set up a one-man commission with me on the feasibility of the railway line in 2014 that we should not take the railway on the surface, rather we should build long tunnels. It will reduce the distance by half and also keep it safe from radical elements. In my experience, it may have been difficult, but was possible. No heed was paid to it,” he lamented.
Recalling how PM Modi reacted to his suggestion, he spoke of how then railway minister Suresh Prabhu complained to the Prime Minister that Sreedharan had been stopping work from taking place.
“The PM called me and told me that such a complaint had come and asked me to withdraw my stand. Let the Railways do what they like and take their own time, that’s exactly what he told me,” Sreedharan said. “I also said I will not interfere in it.”
The railway expert also feels that the approach to building the Katra to Banihal line is not right.
“Katra to Banihal is not even 30 per cent complete. This length of 120 km…I don’t think it will be completed for another 20 years. This railway line is essential for the sake of the country and the total integration of Jammu and Kashmir into India. This train service can ply throughout the year, especially when the roads are blocked due to snowfall. It is unfortunate how it is terribly delayed,” he said.