The first train on the completed track of the Konkan railway was flagged off on a Republic Day, on January 26, 1998. Twenty one Republic Days and three days later, on January 29, 2019, India lost George Fernandes, the man whose passion, administrative prowess and missionary zeal helped India execute that project, which was a "tryst with destiny" for many people in the coastal belt of Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka redeemed in the 50th year of the nation's Independence.
The visionary railway minister and a great defence minister, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi describes him in his condolence tweet, was suffering from prolonged illness. He was 88. Fernandes was the Defence Minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee government when India carried out successful nuclear bomb tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan, also in 1998, the year when his dream Konkan project took off.
While credit to Pokhran tests will be shared, Konkan railway was a dream come true for Fernandes, who hails from Mangalore, one end of the Konkan coastal belt. "The very decisive steps he took as Railway Minister and financing strategy employed made his dream come true. This country would not have got this most useful railway line, which reduced travel time by 12 hours and travel distance by 650 Kms, but for his vision and passion. Konkan Railway will remain as an everlasting achievement of George Fernandes," says E Sreedharan, the first chairman-cum-Managing Director of Konkan Railway Corporation. Sreedharan, who was handpicked by Fernandes for this project, is none other than India's Metro Man, who steered Delhi Metro Rail Corporation during its initial phase.
It was in December 1989 George Fernandez took over as the country's Railway Minister under V P Singh led Janata Dal government. In the very first week, he had a meeting with the members of the Railway Board. "I was then Member Engineering, Railway Board and was away to Kerala on a holiday. Sri George Fernandez made two demands in that meeting. One was construction of a Railway bridge linking Chithoni to Bagha across the Gandag river in Bihar, from where he was elected to the parliament. The second was construction of a Railway line connecting Bombay to Mangalore along the west coast - an important missing link in the Railway map of India," Sreedharan recalls.
The main problem with the construction of a new railway line that now connects 741 kilometre stretch of coastal line in the three states, apart from the engineering challenges that it posed, was the budgetary requirement. Konkan railway project was expected to be 840 kilometers long with an estimated cost of Rs 1600 crores at a time when the annual railway budget for new lines used to be around 300 crores. Since there were already lines under construction in other parts of the country, any budgetary allocation above Rs 25 crore was considered to be too high. And with that budget, even after discounting for cost escalation, the construction time would have taken 20 to 25 years.
Sreedharan says that he, therefore, had to suggest a new strategy for raising funds for the project. The plan was to create a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) in which all the three States along the route and its Southern most beneficiary state Kerala could be equity partners on a Build, Operate and Transfer basis. While four state governments contribute to 1/3rd of the project cost, remaining 2/3 will be raised from the market. He placed this proposal before Fernandez on January 2, 1990. "Being a shrewd administrator rather than a politician, he jumped to grab this proposal wholeheartedly. Within 2 days of our return to Delhi, he was able to get the clearance from the Finance Minister Madhu Dandavate, vice chairman Planning commission Ramakrisha Hegde - both hailing from the Konkan region and finally the nod from the Prime Minister V P Singh," Sreedharan explains.
The proposal was included in the Railways works programme for the year 1990-91, Konkan Railway Corporation was formed, and the new railway route passing through one of the most difficult terrains ever encountered in the history of railway construction in India got completed in a record short period of 7 years. As tributes flow in memories of Fernandes today, Konkan Railway will remain as the tallest tribute Fernandes has given to his nation.