Vande Bharat architect tells its story

Are we able to manufacture to the standards that we import, even after decades? The answer is a resounding no. Because when you say technology transfer… I call it an oxymoron…. Technology is a creation that lives in the mind and the heart of the creator. There is no way to transfer that. We are stuck between mindlessly global and hopelessly local. The truth is stuck somewhere between, I would say near the hopelessly local.”

RI Director Raju Subramanian; Sudhanshu Mani, creator of Vande Bharat Express; and PRID C Basker.

With these captivating words ­Sudhanshu Mani, the mastermind behind the Vande Bharat Express train, captured the attention of the delegates at the Bengaluru zone institute. As GM of the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), it was his passion and belief that made possible an entirely indigenous high-speed train within 18 months.

He told the gathering that if one is confident of “making your own, you can deliver not only 100, but 110 or 115 per cent… more than what you are otherwise capable of. But to achieve anything significant, first of all you have to love what you do. Love the people, your colleagues, love the organisation you work for. If you don’t, then quit, unless it’s a serious bread and butter issue.”

Saying that human resource is the most important resource, he said, “I love the Indian Railways with all my heart, warts and all, but the image of an Indian Railways train has not changed in decades. It is the same box like thing… the colour has changed, more AC coaches have been added and some new technology has come in. That is all. I’ve always had this angst that we make our trains with such a large ­network, such a large pool of ­engineers, but when is India going to have a ­technically superior, technologically advanced Indian train, and that was the seed of this (Vande Bharat) story.”

Mani said change is essential but not much of it has happened at the ICF over the decades. “Set up in 1955 as the dream of Jawaharlal Nehru to make train coaches of current technology by railway men like me, it basically kept doing the same with not much variety, so much so that it has a world record of having turned out the maximum number of coaches from a single factory.”

Coming to the Vande Bharat project, he said about 30 months before his retirement he asked for a posting as GM of ICF-Chennai, which was easy to get as it is not a very popular post! Maintaining that the authority of a GM exceeds that of a CEO of a large private company, Mani said: “Look at the large canvas given to you, with a very large palette of colours; you can choose the hues of your liking. I land in this factory, and we are still a very feudal organisation.”

39 Chennai women aged between 23 and 57, did heavy welding, heavy lifting, heavy fitting entirely on their own and the pride they had in their work, that they could deliver as good as men, if not better, was phenomenal.

Giving an insight into the working of a government enterprise, and different threads of how he was able to pull off such a challenging project, the railway man said, “As a general rule, about 20 to 25 per cent in government service are so self-motivated that they carry the organisation on their shoulders. All you need to do is just pat them on the back. Out of the remaining 75 per cent, there will be two to three per cent who will never work. No punishment will work; either reform or sack.”

If there is no spirit of reform, using the power given to one by the GoI, sack those people, he said. And unlike the popular perception, in government “it is easier to sack people than in a private enterprise, but we don’t do it. We were able to sack about 165 people to send the message to the other 70 per cent, that there is a punishment for non-performance. Everybody respects a poisonous snake!”

Ruing that good ideas and good people are always available in the government but are never given a chance, he said: “All you have to do is pick a few of the best and your agenda is done. The problem is that you make somebody a leader but put rules, regulations, audit, vigilance, what not. Time has come to give trust a chance, some people may misuse it, but things will get done and corruption, believe me, will come down. We trusted only two gentlemen; the chief engineer design (mechanical) and the chief engineer design (electrical). In the short period we had at our command, I said buy whatever you want from whatever source, single, double, and met with success.”

By empowering people to do their jobs, improvements were made in production and “we also became the only carbon negative factory of Indian Railways,” by using solar and wind power, he said.

He also took a firm stance on the issue of sexual harassment; “normally lip service is paid on women’s empowerment, but I took the issue very seriously and said I am not the chief justice of India, I am a simple administrator,” but made it clear that such behaviour would not be tolerated. On complaints, an informal inquiry was made, in four hours he could find out through an informal inquiry, and “going by the powers given to me by the GoI, I sacked the gentleman the same day. When asked why no inquiry was held, I said I didn’t want the woman officer to relive that horror and hence am sacking this guy.”

The result was that a bunch of determined women, who wanted to prove their mettle, got confidence to deliver their best. “And 39 Chennai women, aged between 23 and 57, did heavy welding, heavy lifting, heavy fitting entirely on their own and the pride they had in their work, that they could deliver as good as men, if not better, was phenomenal.”

Of course, there were problems and challenges in completing the project; such as internecine warfare within the Indian Railways which had to be overcome and “then there is always the gentleman with the dollars who says we can’t do this ourselves; we have to import.”

But against these negatives, there were so many ideas, so much energy in his team, all that was required was to channelise it. He also described how he got the required permissions from the chairman of the board… and concluded: “If you give your best, success will come… and it did come. We engaged consultants for design input, not transfer of technology. They said in a project of this magnitude, if you work in a systematic manner, from concept to design, to engineering to manufacturing, it will take 36 to 42 months. You are retiring in Dec 2018. But I said we will do something which has never been done… we will do unsystematic work. And we will turn out this train before
I retire in the calendar year 2018 itself… and hence gave the name Train 18.”

Fortune favours the brave; the project was completed and the train was tested at 180km and flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi between Varanasi and Delhi. “Now there are more than 45 such trains, with only one failure which is more than Six Sigma. We were building a train, just a train, it was not Chandrayaan, Mangalyaan, a space rocket. But the kind of appreciation and love we got was phenomenal… from travellers, non-travellers, media, public. Why, because they thought for the first time Indians had built something purely for India by India. The PM puts it beautifully when he says this train is a symbol of a resurgent and aspirational India,” Mani added.


Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat


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