The Challenger’s ‘Track’ Record: Pankaj Kumar Bansal, IAS
By Sanjay Pinto

It was a challenge that elicited guffaws from construction goliaths and international consultants roped in by Chennai Metro Rail Limited. But it could not be ignored, coming as it did, not from a rookie engineer but the top boss. Barely six months after Pankaj Kumar Bansal took over as the Managing Director in December, 2013, he wondered why platforms of 240 metres needed to be constructed when the train required only 140 to 145  metres to park at the station. Soon, there were reasons galore, like the necessity of  more space to accommodate separate  rooms for various departments. Digging in his heels, the 1997 batch IAS officer, ensured that in two years, his team came up with a ‘Yes, We Can’ answer to his 145 metre challenge, arguably “for the first time in the world.” Two key lines were flagged off recently, with passengers now able to travel from Chennai Central to the Airport, with a frequency of a train every 5 minutes, likely to go up to one every two and a half minutes, at just seventy rupees.

Underground station construction, with traffic flowing above, was beset with problems. The construction industry was in the doldrums. “A Russian firm suddenly vanished from the scene.” Tunnelling was cumbersome with many buildings in the vicinity complaining of cracks developing. “We overcame this issue by doing a detailed survey, sharing it with the building owners and closely monitoring the work at every point.” Each underground station would cost 400 to 500 crore but by thinking out of the box, he was able to deliver the goods “at a third of the cost, with less land acquisition” and at an express pace. “Of the 33 stations in the first phase, 27 are operational and we hope to complete the remaining in about six months.”  That’s some signal contribution!

(Pic: Pankaj Kumar Bansal, IAS, Managing Director – Chennai Metro Rail Ltd.)

Defying odds and getting his way has been the common thread that runs through Bansal’s career. Actually, right throughout his life itself. A small town boy from Beswan in Uttar Pradesh and the son of a humble businessman Kishan Swaroop Bansal and homemaker Dayawati, he made it to IIT (BHU) Varanasi for a B Tech in Mechanical Engineering and to IIT Delhi for M Tech in Thermal Engineering. The financial heat forced him to first join the private sector with Blow Plast India as a Management Trainee and later a Senior Engineer, before his third shot at the Civil Services Examination. What propelled him to change tack from engineering to administration? “That’s an identical question I was asked in the UPSC interview! And my answer remains the same. Whether you are a specialist or a generalist, my credo has always been to create an impact.”

Not an empty smart alec retort but the proof of the impact is in the implementation in seven districts and other assignments.  In one of his early postings as the Additional Collector  of Ooty, the Hill Area Development Programme came under his sway. “I quite lapped up work in sustainable development, tourism and tribal welfare.” Handpicked to deal with naxal issues in Dharmapuri, Bansal decided to “counter it with development.” The risk it entailed necessitated a security cover. But he declined it and went about establishing a sort of Mobile Collectorate in the district! “I focussed on water supply, schools, building motorable roads and food for tribal areas. Many tribals used to survive on roots, which was their staple. And had to walk more than 10 kilometres to their habitation. I ensured that they got 35 kilograms of rice. Initially, my entire team of officials would trudge there every morning, take care of their basic facilities and leave the areas only around 4 pm.”

As the Collector of  Thiruvallur during the 2005 floods, I remember interviewing Bansal on NDTV. My first encounter with him began with a stiff “water has entered people’s homes. What are you doing?” He shot back: “homes have entered lakes” and went on to explain the cause of flooding – encroachments, before spelling out relief measures. The Sivaganga stint is known more for the high profile election photo finish of former Union Finance Minister P .Chidambaram from the constituency.  Bansal insists that the real highlight of his tensure there was busting a 1000 acre land fraud in Karaikudi. “Some land sharks entered into a criminal conspiracy with officials, fabricated pattas and got hold of the vast land there. We took control of it and built a good district hospital and other facilities on the site.”

The Hogenekkal Water Scheme was one of the biggest in Tamil Nadu at the time. “The 2000 crore scheme in 2009 involved supplying water to Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri. This was due to the flouride issue and water scarcity. Water was pumped from the Hogenekkal Falls for over 6000 habitations. I  suspected that a  few private players had formed a cartel and quoted higher rates but with a free hand given to me by my bosses, I managed to save a whopping 900 crore rupees.” All this was despite his additional charge as the Commissioner of Town & Country Planning.

Bansal’s foray into the Health Department in 2011, as a Special Secretary, coincided with the renewal of the State Government’s Health Insurance Scheme benefitting 1.3 crore poor families with mediclaim of a lakh and a half each. “The premium was in the range of 700 to 800 crore and only 1.5 per cent payout went to Government Hospitals!” Convinced that it had to change, Mr.Challenger went about offering upto “25 per cent incentives to our dedicated government doctors and nurses, a 60 per cent allocation for implants and equipment and the balance for infrastructure. This resulted in a  35 per cent diversion to government hospitals.”

I bet the private sector would rue the year it lost this resource to the government! What with all his aces, even away from the tennis court, which, incidentally, is a place he unwinds, apart from a dash of yoga and quality time with friends.

Bansal who is preparing to go out of town the day after this interview, has given his driver an off day. “I will take the Metro to the Airport. It’s much faster than my car”, he gushes with his disarming smile, before chugging along for a spot of meditation.  

(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)