Written by Rishi Aggarwal
Another blot has been added to Mumbai’s governance. If 10 people dying every day on the hyper-congested Mumbai local train system was not enough, we now have 22 people dead and 39 injured in one of the worst stampedes the city has ever seen. Though there will be exhortations to not engage in a blame game at this moment about the poor state of Mumbai’s infrastructure, the blame must necessarily be established.
I was part of the committee that the Railways formed under then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu in December 2015 to recommend safety measures on the Mumbai Suburban Railway system in response to the Dombivili incident where a commuter fell from a packed train during the morning peak hour and the incident was recorded by a fellow commuter in a short video clip. Had there been no video clip — which also went viral — there was no chance of a committee being formed. We respond insincerely to dramatic incidents.
I use the train system quite frequently. So, the current tragedy is deeply personal to me and infuriating. I tried saving those lives in my own way much before the accident happened and failed. Some committee members and I highlighted the dangerous conditions which exist at numerous stations and how their discharge capacity needs to be enhanced by an order of magnitude if accidents like Elphinstone are not to happen again.
The problems with the Elphinstone Road station and the adjoining Parel station are well known for more than a decade. Between them and the Lower Parel station, these stations power the gross domestic product (GDP) of India. Massive commercial complexes have come up around five railways stations in the area in the last decade and they house the who’s who of corporate India. Thousands of people are employed here, and with their hard work, enterprises contribute to the GDP and the tax coffers. Defunct cotton mills used to stand here until the owners in collusion with politicians and bureaucrats came up with a formula to commercially develop them contrary to the recommendations of the Charles Correa Committee formed in 1995.
Massive protests were held by advocacy groups in 2005 and attention was drawn to how the infrastructure in the Mill Lands District is just not sufficient to handle a large number of people who will start thronging the commercial complexes once they are ready. Thousands of crores of tax money flow into the coffers of the local government, state government and the Central government every month from this region of Mumbai and yet, there is no money to spend a few crores on constructing a few additional foot overbridges or widen the existing ones? What highlights the scale of neglect is that one of the main contributory factors to the current tragedy was that it was raining heavily and there was no roofing outside the foot overbridge. We know how hard the Mumbai rains can be and yet the city administration cannot provide adequate rain shelters to the city’s lifeline? Heavy rains are being blamed for the stampede.
The current regime has shown itself to be no different from the previous ones Mumbai has witnessed. For a long time, the issue was about fragmented coalition governments which was the case with the UPA government and how that was impacting decision-making. But with the BJP being in absolute majority in the Centre, the state and a sizeable presence in the city government also, it was expected that the speed of decision making on pending improvements in Mumbai’s infrastructure will gather pace. It is nearly three years now, there has been no change on fronts where it is needed the most.
The commentary cannot be completed without highlighting the enormous enthusiasm in the same administration about the coastal road project, which has seen so much opposition from the same few usual constituents. A total of Rs 10,000 crore is to be spent on building a 29-km road on the west coast which, even by best estimates, will transport not more than half-a-million people per day. Enhancing the quality of infrastructure and multi-modal transfers in around 200-meter radius of the 100-odd railway stations in Mumbai that support 8 million passengers is of no interest to politicians and decision makers.