Starting out as a one-man team in the Hyderabad municipal corporation, this shishya of E Sreedharan had a dream to build a Hyderabad metro network that would redesign the city itself.
The first-of-its-kind PPP venture faced many challenges — technical, social, and political — but N V S Reddy has shown that where there is passion, there is a way to get work done.
“You have to think about how you can make our country a different country.”
With this motto as his driving force, N V S Reddy, the Managing Director of the Hyderabad Metro Rail Limited (HMRL), has been propelling the Hyderabad Metro rail project forward in a way that has made it synonymous with efficiency and a standard among public-private partnership (PPP) ventures.
Swarajya caught up with N V S Reddy and discussed several aspects of the challenging project. Excerpts of the interview follow.
We know that Hyderabad Metro has the second-largest operational network in the country, and is the only one in PPP mode. Are there any other unique features?
Yes. A PPP of this magnitude — a $3 billion or Rs 20,000-crore metro rail project — is unheard of even in advanced countries; it’s a `first’.
Uniqueness begins with this underlying rationale: whereas most metros are built as engineering or transportation projects, I look at it as an opportunity to redesign a city.
Western countries have learnt it the hard way; the spatial expansion of cities happened as a result of automobile revolution, which means cities were designed for car movement, not for people!
I feel cities should be convenient for women, children, the differently-abled, the elderly. People should enjoy quality public spaces; not everyone can afford to go to clubs! There is a direct correlation between crime rates in cities and lack of public space.
Gender equality is another important aspect. Women can move independently when there is good public transport — just like how the advent of two-wheelers made a big difference.
After the Nirbhaya incident, I conducted sessions with various women’s groups and got valuable inputs about safety and shared them with my engineers. We are building a public utility — not Taj Mahal — and the engineer’s job is to understand the problems of the society and give technical solutions.
We placed 64 surveillance cameras at every station — this automatically brings down eve-teasing.
Next, Hyderabad Metro stations look different at the ground level. Usually, a ‘palace-like’ station is built above or underground but the ground level is neglected, because metro rail organizations do not own the roads, the Municipal Corporations do.
Even in advanced countries, entries to the underground Metro stations resemble rat holes! I have begun changing the landscape at street-level with street furniture, greenery, sidewalks, etc.
If congestion in cities is to be reduced, there needs to be good pedestrian facilities along with an efficient public transport system.
We often hear about `engineering innovations’ by HMRL. Can you give an example?
One example is the prefabricated station structure we put — again a first. Normally, elevated metro stations have a `portal structure’. The challenge I gave the L&T engineers was to make a `balanced cantilever structure’; it’s a very complicated design.
Though initially nervous, the engineers actually did it!
Thus, not for a moment did we stop traffic. My guru, E Sreedharan, called this a “marvel”. We have many such engineering achievements.
You have been given an extension for the third time. What is your success mantra?
Passion for work is the most important, and that was the only thing that could make this project a reality; it had been written off as being “impossible”, “jinxed”, etc. For seven years, I worked without a single day off, even on festivals.
The second thing, have an open mind regarding ideas and solutions, which often involves reconciling contrasting views. There are 2600 pillars or “piers”, technically, in this project and I can write a chapter on each pillar and how the problem was solved!
There are several unforeseen things: like, when digging, we had to rely on intelligence and common sense to figure out if there were water pipes, naalas, sewage lines or electrical cables underneath.
Because, often, things like drawings for even recent water pipelines are not available with the Water Board. One such ‘hunch’ actually led to the discovery of a huge, “elephant naala” from the Nizam’s days!
It was live, and right in front of the Assembly — a nightmare because it was in the middle of the road deep below and couldn’t be shifted. Solutions usually had to be found without stopping essential services and traffic even for a few hours! People are not aware of all these things.
Often, I came up with the workable solution myself and then the engineers would do the millions of calculations required for the sake of stability of the structures. It’s not only about weight; there are different kinds of stresses.
Though Hyderabad is not in the seismic zone, we have incorporated resistance into the design because I am building the structures for the next 100 years. Extreme loading conditions were designed.
I am basically a finance person but we were taught rigorous courses in engineering in the Railway Staff College, and plus, I have been in projects throughout.
Yet, two-thirds of my problems are not engineering problems but social, heritage and other problems. Especially in a sensitive city like Hyderabad. Unless you have an open mind, it is impossible to handle the combination of problems.
Finally, when we were under attack, as a leader, I never revealed problems to my people as they would get demotivated. I would keep their morale up by telling them management and stories from the Olympics to overcome the worst circumstances.
When agitations were going on, I wrote songs in favor of the metro, with the help of an RTC (Road Transport Corporation) driver who writes poetry. We released 5000 CDs, which were played in pandals during festivals and they became very popular.
These appeal more to the people, rather than esoteric things like “air pollution”. Communication is important. If you have passion and you enjoy your work, solutions come to you and innovations happen.
Why did you think of PPP mode at all?
I had worked with Mr Sreedharan on the Konkan Railway. Later I came to the Andhra Pradesh government on deputation from the South Central Railway.
I had a dream — if Delhi could have a metro, why not Hyderabad? In 2006, when we expressed our wish to chief minister YSR (Y S Rajashekhar Reddy), his reply was, “Fine, but don’t ask me for money!”
He told me to think of a model — “since you have done many projects and are known for your innovation.”
I started the project as a single-man organization in the Municipal Corporation; later, I wanted freedom and in 2007, HMRL was formed. I had the best of engineers, brilliant people but they were wary of the private sector.
I had worked in the Railways and knew rail operations are complicated; but my argument was, if you can trust the private sector with air safety, rail safety is definitely less complicated. You see, reforms had bypassed the Railways; slowly, I brainwashed them.
We had to prepare technical documents, the Concessionaire Agreement, etc., from scratch. They were not available, as hardly 4-5 projects in the world are PPPs, that too they are part-PPP.
Mostly, they are government projects, which is a different ballgame — if government gives you money, you construct. And then one is not bothered about what kind of specifications you put, whereas when it is a private thing, you have to be extremely careful.
I sat with experts like Gajendra Haldea, and discussed each clause in detail.
Those technical documents would be quite a treasure…
Yes, the Planning Commission published them in 2009 as a `Standard Concessionaire Agreement’, available to anyone. I have made them technology-neutral, where you don’t tell them how to design but just give them broad parameters, safety requirements, performance indices, etc. Pune is now following these documents.
When the initial agreement with Maytas Infra failed, was it a damper?
Yes, but you must deal with failure. Crisis management is about how you think differently. You have to think about how you can make our country a different country.
Many top guys commit suicide because one, you are lonely at the top, and two, the pressure is high. In India, you are also worried about what society thinks.
I lecture across institutions about failure management, leadership during crisis, and pressure at the highest levels.
After L&T came in as concessionaire, it was still far from smooth-sailing, right?
The kinds of problems we faced! There were huge protests, my effigy was burnt any number of times, and I had to be given police protection!
In this country, we have extreme freedom and we don’t realize that democracy doesn’t mean only rights but also responsibilities. No Harvard, MIT or Stanford can teach you how to do a project in sensitive Indian cities.
Extreme patience and perseverance was required. Any religious structure takes 1–1.5 years of negotiations, and even though our engineering solutions had ensured that the main structure was not affected, objections were raised even for compound walls.
For other reasons, we were targeted by politicians, NGOs, and all kinds of vested interests.
Some people have said that instead of a metro, there should be a BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System)…
Everyone is an expert in this country! People have even said MMTS (Multi-modal Transport System) is preferable to a metro, not realizing that it was I who had built MMTS — and which, incidentally, they had opposed then.
Well, I was one of the first few Indians to talk about BRTS but then realized the limitations. Fact is, our cities are not planned cities. We don’t have what is called a `hierarchy of roads’, where an arterial road leads to a sub-arterial road, which further leads to smaller levels of roads.
Instead, we have ‘gallis’ connected straight to the main road and that’s how, at every few hundred metres, you have a junction. Traffic and transportation engineers are aghast to see how traffic moves in any Indian city at 3-4 times the capacity of a junction!
You must remember that there are strong lobbies in transportation — a strong metro lobby, a monorail lobby, a strong BRTS lobby, etc. All modes have their merits and demerits.
You are involved with the Elevated Bus Rapid Transit System (EBRTS) for Hyderabad Airport Metro Ltd (HAML). Could you elaborate, please?
Yes. I was fascinated with the BRTS that was successfully implemented in South American cities. In big Indian cities, conditions are normally not conducive — at grade road level, it is not possible. At junctions especially, there are problems as you need a dedicated right-of-way.
In this stretch [where the EBRTS is being set up], with dedicated right-of-way, we are making it. It’s at half the cost of [building a] metro. At every half a kilometre you have a bus station that looks almost like a metro station; and there’s no pollution because they are all electric vehicles.
But how does HMRL have the mandate for EBRTS?
I have the expertise, as I have been involved with road flyover projects earlier. It will be another PPP, after bidding.
And then we are giving linkages with the Metro — starting from KPHB station of the Metro Corridor 1 and touching Mindspace junction of Corridor 3, and also some in-between connections.
We can definitely guide them. Some of my engineers are well trained, and there can be synergies with the Metro.
Will the work at Raidurg stretch be completed as per schedule by August-end?
Yes, another couple of months, maybe by September.
How do you keep to minimum the famous “time and cost overruns” assumed to be inherent in infrastructure projects?
I would rather not comment on that at this stage.
But are there solutions so that these overruns don’t occur at all?
There are solutions. Again, had I behaved like a typical bureaucrat, this project would not have happened.
Even though the concessionaire agreement talks about what the government should do and what the concessionaire should do, it doesn’t work like that. You have to be proactive.
Also, I completely shielded and ring-fenced my private sector partner — I was the face of the metro and handled all kinds of political pressures.
Then, the issue of corruption. I had made up my mind that not a rupee would be paid to anyone. Luckily, all chief ministers and chief secretaries supported me — I survived five CMs and 13 chief secretaries!
Why is there still delay in building the Old City stretch — hadn’t the opposition to it and other issues been resolved?
No, works have not started yet in the Old City. There are many issues and I wouldn’t want to comment on it.
Now `they’ are ready, but there are other issues. Initially, at that time, it could have been easily done, but…
What gives you the confidence that the project will break even by 2022?
Like I mentioned in the original model, it will break even in the fifth year, or maybe slightly later, but it will. I have designed it like that.
How have you designed it?
Only four metro systems in the world are making money. They were also built as government projects but later they realized the efficiency of the private sector. There, 50-percent of the revenue comes from passenger fares and 50 percent from property development.
For funding options, you need to think through and come up with ideas. Like here, out of the 2-acre plot for the station, I built `Metro Bhawan’ on only half an acre; the rest was given to the concessionaire L&T to build a mall.
For the standard problem of `Last-mile connectivity’, you had tied up with a parking aggregator, but there were issues…can you tell us more about this?
There are vested interests, and teething problems do arise, but nothing as sensational as some would want you to believe.
We are doing a lot of work differently. Things are happening, which I don’t want to mention at this stage. Some examples are electric charging facilities in a big way, and shuttle services. And, without spending public money.
You keep talking about not spending public money and involving the private sector. Why would the private sector be convinced?
I believe in market forces. Otherwise it becomes like subsidies.
It’s not as if I trust the private sector blindly. I don’t encourage monopoly rights, and tell them they need to face competition. But I firmly believe in private-sector entrepreneurship and flexibility, and I encourage and mentor many engineers.
Solutions can always be found.
Despite benefits, a metro rail is expensive to build. What are other options for enhanced connectivity?
A metro is not always required, and cheaper options can be thought of. There is a concept called PHPDT (peak-hour peak-direction traffic) — from point A to point B, how many people are required to be transported. That should determine what mode and system of transport to build.
Despite the huge number of people taking to metro commute, traffic snarls remain. In what ways can this be addressed?
They will remain. No city is able to solve all its traffic problems.
There are 50 lakh vehicles in Hyderabad and we are adding half a million each year, with increasing urbanization. Indian cities are powder kegs, at the rate cars are coming on to the roads — narrow lanes, and cars on both sides!
Not just cities but even villages will come to a standstill or erupt with violence.
All over the world, there are restrictions on private vehicles, and that should come here in India as well.
Would more flyovers help?
Flyovers are required but can only be a mid-term solution. Long-term solution is good public transport, pedestrian facilities, and first- and last-mile connectivity. So that there is no need for private vehicles at all.
Pedestrian facilities require space, and we Indians also have entrenched civic habits. How will you translate these ideas into reality?
We have done it on Road no. 36, Jubilee Hills. We found that many houses had violated the house-plan, and so we demolished the encroachments mercilessly. Out of 370 court cases, we won 360 — mostly land-acquisition cases.
I give credit to the governments at the centre and the state, as I received no veiled threats. Of course, I became very unpopular with some people but it had to be done.
Anything the Telangana government has done that can serve as an example to other states?
Most states are doing things but sometimes governments don’t always have the right priorities. There, bureaucrats with vision become important.
What is your message to the public, as a metro chief?
Please be responsible and disciplined. We are collectively doing a lot of damage to the city and our health — use public transport wherever possible!
Have we seen any instances of damage to the Metro in Hyderabad?
No, the violations were in town-planning; with Metro property, people are behaving very well! I thank them for that.
And on that positive note, we wound up the interview.