Elias George, the managing director of the Kochi Metro Rail Limited, talks about his experiences
Photos by K. Shijith
By Shevlin Sebastian
On a recent Thursday morning, Elias George stepped into a Kochi metro train that was travelling from Palarivattom to Aluva. However, it did not take long before a man approached him. “Aren't you Elias George?” he said, extending his hand. “I am Fr. John (name changed). I want to congratulate you on a job well done.”
“Thank you,” said the Managing Director of the Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL). The priest then introduced his son and daughter-in-law. “They live in Kuwait, so before they returned, I wanted them to have a ride on the Metro,” says Fr. John. The couple and Elias exchanged smiles.
It was a gratifying moment for the senior bureaucrat. When Elias took over four years ago, he was apprehensive. “There were so many hindrances in doing a mega project in Kerala,” he says. “Firstly, everybody has a different political and social view. Secondly, we had to acquire 600 parcels of land through the district administration. I was worried about whether we could pull it through. On top of that, there were was a tussle between the DMRC (Delhi Metro Rail Corporation) and KMRL. We are the client and they are the country's leading metro agency.”
A calm and laid-back person, Elias strove to iron out the glitches. And looking back, he has a good idea of how things worked out. “In Kerala, for a project to succeed, you have to make people believe your purpose is genuine,” says the 60-year-old. “The public always think that any person who is involved in such a massive project has a hidden agenda. Once they were convinced about our sincerity, the whole of Kochi offered full support.”
He gives an example. One day, a trader, Mohammed, met Elias in his office and said he had ten cents of land at Aluva. It was the third time the government was acquiring his land. First, the National Highway acquired some, followed by the Public Works Department. “Now the Metro wants my last ten cents,” said Mohammed. “But take it, Sir. My children will have a better tomorrow. The Metro will provide many economic opportunities.”
Another major plus was the presence of E. Sreedharan, the principal adviser to the DMRC (Sreedharan, a Padma Vibhushan winner set up the Delhi Metro as well as the Konkan Railway project, among many other undertakings).
“Sreedharan has got tremendous project implementation experience and skills,” says Elias. “He knows how to manage different types of contractors. More than anything else, because of his reputation and stature, nobody, especially the labour unions, would come and harass us. He is like a banyan tree, providing shade and security to all of us.”
The 'us' included thousands of migrant labourers from the states of Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam. In fact, they comprised more than 90 per cent of the work force.
Asked why there were so few Malayalis, Elias says, “They are highly-skilled, educated, and adaptable but, increasingly, they are reluctant to work with their hands. And the Metro work entails hard physical labour. Today, Kerala is a high-wage economy. So, Malayalis are getting jobs elsewhere.”
Throughout his stint, Elias kept getting insights. And one perception was about the work culture in the country. “One of the problems with Indian organisations is ageism,” he says. “The managing director is in his late fifties, the director, fifty, and the general manager is forty. But all the creative energies and ideas come from below. Unfortunately, Indian organisations don't tap that. The lowest fellow cannot talk to the director.”
Realising that he was in the same boat, he decided to destroy the hierarchy. “We became like a start-up,” says Elias. “The average age is 32. In the KMRL you are valued for your contributions and not for your seniority or designation. When I retire this is something that I will propagate, apart from how we were able to set up the fastest first-phase metro project in the country.”
Away from the family
For the past five years, Elias George has been staying alone at Kochi. That is because his wife, Aruna Sundarajan, is Secretary, Telecom, Government of India. While his son Alok works with a private equity firm in Dubai, daughter Priya is a lawyer in Delhi. “Once a month, some meeting comes up in Delhi, so I get a chance to meet the family,” says Elias.
On weekends, at dawn, Elias George goes kayaking in the backwaters of Kochi. “If you want to see the beauty of Kerala, this is the best time and place to be,” says Elias. “I also do a lot of cycling and walking. Sometimes, I go trekking in the forests of Idukki.” And he also likes reading. The last book he read was ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ by Arundhati Roy. “She is an extraordinary talent, but this novel has a structural weakness,” says Elias.
The Kochi Metro is the first to put literature up on the walls. They have also set up areas where herbs are grown. They are the first to hire transgenders and use the women of the Kudumbasree (community action group of the government of Kerala).
The Kochi Metro was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 17
Cost: Over Rs 5000 crores.
Length: 25 kms
No of stations: 22
Shortest time taken for first phase: 45 months.
Mumbai took 75 months, while Chennai was ready in 72 months.
Water metro: will connect the 10 islands near Kochi to the Metro at a cost of Rs 800 crore.
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)