E Sreedharan’s reputation as a technocrat is so solid that governments from J&K to Kerala seek out Sreedharan’s services to solve the most difficult of their infrastructure challenges.

Last year, when the Jammu & Kashmir High Court decided to set up a group of experts to help save a “decaying” Dal lake, the man it turned to lead the team was E Sreedharan.

His reputation as a technocrat is so solid that governments from J&K to Kerala seek out Sreedharan’s services to solve the most difficult of their infrastructure challenges. He started working at the age of 21 in 1953, and at 88 now, still lives and breathes work. He is travelling about half the days every month.“I cited my age to withdraw from the Dal lake assignment, but the court did not heed,” says the man whose name is inseparable with India’s metro networks and the Konkan Railway. “It only changed my designation from chairman of the expert committee to principal consultant.” Sreedharan is the winner of the ET Lifetime Achievement Award, and he says this is not his first time that he got an ET award. “The first time was in 2009, as the Policy Change Agent in the Delhi Metro. I consider this award as a great recognition and an honour.”

While the Dal lake project, as Sreedharan says, “is keeping me busy for the last one year”, he is also passionately involved with the rejuvenation of another waterbody in his home state Kerala: the Bharathappuzha, a river that has inspired several Malayalam literary greats.A host of state governments including J&K, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala have engaged the former Indian Railway Ser- vice of Engineers official in their metro projects after his retirement from the Delhi Metro. A tired Sreedharan had to withdraw himself from the Agra, Kanpur and Lucknow projects.

When he is not bogged down by official assignments, social work is his next favourite calling. He is the country head of the Foundation for Restoration of National Values, a non-profit that has Ratan Tata, Justice MN Venkatachaliah and N Vittal among its members. Its aim: to build the character and value system among the children and in the society as a whole. It files PILs in the courts on issues aligned to this goal.He is also involved in other works that are close to his heart. At his village of Karukaputhur in Palakkad district, Sreedharan is the managing trustee of the village temple.

In the nearby temple town of Guruvayoor, he is part of a team working on a programme to revive and populariseAshtapadiAattam — a declining art of dance drama, which has its origin in the 12th century and was once popular in West Bengal and Odisha. “All these activities are taking a lot of my time. I am trying to slow down.”

One of the hallmarks of Sreedharan’s projects is that they stayed above any hint of corruption or transgression. It worries him to hear about the long delays in the execution of metro works, and he blames frequent changes of officials for this. “I continued as Delhi Metro MD (managing director) for 14 years. In Bangalore Metro, you have the 7th or 8th MD. That is the main reason for the delay.”Metro projects should be ideally led by a technocrat with sound engineering background, Sreedharan advises. He, however, quickly adds that there are competent IAS officers who could manage things well. But political leaders tend to change them because there is no accountability, he complains.

A leader adored by the members of his team, he has this piece of advice to young engineers: “Work for the country. Build yourself the technical competence, value system, character and knowledge.” And, the lesson his life has taught him: “You can achieve many things if you have purity of heart and love for your profession and the country.”