“Mumbai rail overbridge is death trap” is how this newspaper banner-headlined its report about the stampede that killed 23 suburban train commuters at Elphinstone Road station in Mumbai on September 29. As a matter of fact, death traps in the city make headlines with unsurprising frequency, both nationally and internationally. In early September, a residential building in Bhendi Bazar, a highly congested Muslim locality in south-central Mumbai, collapsed, killing 33 residents. Fall of old and dilapidated buildings — the city has 16,000 of them, with 600 in “most dangerous” condition — is as predictable an annual monsoon phenomenon as the flooding of its roads and railway tracks.
Mumbai’s railway tracks are, indeed, killer tracks. If the death toll in the stampede was shocking, it surely would numb the readers’ senses to know that the number is equivalent to only two days’ killings on the city’s railway tracks. Each day — yes, each day — about 10-12 persons, and each year nearly 3,500, are killed either while crossing the tracks or in other forms of avoidable railway mishaps.
“Massacre”. That’s the word Anil Kakodkar, a mild-mannered and conscientious scientist, used in his 2012 report on railway safety to describe this systemic crime. When Suresh Prabhu became the second railway minister in the Modi government in 2015, he bravely announced in his maiden budget speech: “Safety is of paramount importance. The loss of even a single life is too high a price to pay.” We at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Mumbai sent him our report titled “Killer Tracks”, which examined this problem comprehensively and suggested specific corrective measures. Authored by my colleague Dhaval Desai, it also drew the minister’s attention to the urgent need to re-design and rebuild the perilously narrow foot-overbridges at highly crowded stations like Elphinstone, Parel, Andheri and Thane. Prabhu constituted a committee, and it yielded what such committees mostly do: Inaction. The result is there for all to see.
Last year, the ORF Mumbai produced another research report, urging the Modi government to unify the inner-city services of Central Railway and Western Railway to create a single Mumbai Suburban Railway Zone. Authored by the former chairman of Railway Board, Vivek Sahai, this report argued why it made no sense for two separate railway zones to run the same suburban train services in the city. It also suggested that a single zone would help pool resources, support better planning and execution, and improve railway safety. The ministry refused to even discuss it, since this structural reform would entail significant downsizing and relocation of the babudom.
In India, much of public and political debate after mishaps like the one in Mumbai tends to focus on populist palliatives and patchwork solutions. Experience has shown these never work. Indeed, they further compound the problems. This can be clearly seen in the steady degradation of Mumbai, once Urbs Primus in Indis, into a second-class city with mostly third-class political leaders. So where lies a reliable end to Mumbai’s woes?
The big idea Mumbai needs to pursue for its very survival and revival is to radically reform its governance. Specifically, Mumbai, and here I mean Maha Mumbai or the Metropolitan Mumbai, whose area (4,355 sq. km) is 10 times the size of the island city under the jurisdiction of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation or BMC, and which has a combined population of two crore, needs its own autonomous and fully empowered city government. While nominally remaining in Maharashtra, Mumbai’s city government must have complete control over planning and managing its development with a holistic, futuristic, equitable and sustainable perspective, and also the freedom and responsibility to raise necessary finances. (In fact, every Indian mega-city with a population of over one crore should have an empowered city government, only loosely linked to its respective state government.)
How will this help Mumbai? To understand, let’s see how the current system of fragmented, disempowered, inefficient and unaccountable governance is severely harming the city. Three examples would suffice.
One, the city’s highly congested suburban railway stations simply cannot be redesigned and reconstructed into multi-functional smart hubs like the ones we see in Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul and other global cities. Why? Because there is almost zero land-use policy coordination between the railway authorities (central government), state government and the eight municipal corporations in the Mumbai metropolitan area. Often, even BMC and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority or MMRDA (state government) don’t work together. Indeed, the fingerprints of systemic criminality in the Elphinstone Road stampede can be clearly seen in the absence of a single authority to do sound land-use planning: When 600 acres of prime land belonging to closed textile mills was opened up for construction of Trump Tower-like glitzy residential and commercial skyscrapers, no land was made available for redesigning railway stations and comfortable pedestrian movement. A single swanky apartment here costs over Rs 50 crore; and yet, the Modi government meekly confessed that it lacks adequate funds to reconstruct overbridges. Call this holistic planning?
Two, there is no single empowered authority in Mumbai to plan, execute and run smart, multi-modal and integrated transport systems using artificial intelligence, Internet-of-Things (IoT), digital payments, etc. The state government is building metro lines that are largely unconnected to the suburban railway lines. Even though the 164-year-old suburban railway system, which continues to be Mumbai’s lifeline, is overstretched because of prolonged neglect and gross underinvestment, the state government has earmarked nearly Rs 20,000 crore for a coastal road project, largely for the benefit of car-owners. The abiding shame of 3,500 yearly deaths on railway tracks is also because the railway ministry in New Delhi, state government and municipal corporations do not sit together to undertake holistic remedial measures.
Three, lack of a single empowered governing body is affecting not only public transport. It is also responsible for the worsening problem of slums, where over half of Mumbai’s population is condemned to live, and the attendant challenges of sanitation, water supply, waste management, etc. Isn’t all this an affront to human dignity?
It is. But don’t expect Narendra Modi, who often claims he has become prime minister to do “big things”, and not “small things”, to do anything. Radical urban governance reforms are too big a thing for him, or for Mumbai’s chauvinistic politicians, to even attempt. Meanwhile, my beloved Mumbai, your agony will continue.