As the death toll in Friday’s stampede at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road railway station rose to 23, Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal declared that he’s “turning a 150-year-old convention on its head” by making foot overbridges at all suburban railway stations in the financial capital mandatory. It is incredible that this wasn’t already so. The question now is: How much longer will a city with global aspirations be served by a central mass transit infrastructure whose backbone remains much as it was imagined by colonial engineers?
As much as 78 per cent of Mumbai’s 14 million residents depend on the local trains and buses to go to work. But somehow, planners’ ideas of what is essential, non-negotiable infrastructure for them date back a hundred years. It is little wonder if the 75 lakh Mumbaikars who use the suburban trains everyday view the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, to be built through a Rs 1.08 lakh crore soft loan from Japan, as yet another case of skewed priorities, adding to an infrastructure development regime that excludes and segregates, and that has long prioritised the fraction of the population that drives to work. MNS chief Raj Thackeray has threatened that his men will “not allow a brick to be laid” for the bullet train project. Many average Mumbaikars have begun to sign online petitions and join social media conversations on expenditure that ignores the most critical problems. Indeed, the minister promising a “safe” bullet train at a press conference on the day after the stampede had a dreadful backdrop — more than 3,200 people died in railway accidents in Mumbai in 2016, or almost nine every day; the railway administration delayed an additional foot overbridge at Elphinstone Road station even after receiving dozens of complaints about an impending tragedy, including from at least two Members of Parliament. In Mumbai, a simple air-conditioned suburban service is yet to start; and the fate of a proposed elevated line that will nearly double the capacity on the Western Railway’s suburban section remains uncertain. The Mumbai Urban Transport Project-II schemes for capacity augmentation through additional lines, extending existing lines and replacing old rakes have run into cost overruns and delays. The number and size of foot overbridges, platform length, drinking water facilities and toilets date back to the Eighties and Nineties.
Of course, the malaise in Mumbai’s infrastructure building is not limited to the railways. Bureaucrats and politicians of all hues agree that Mumbai cannot have the roads it does, or the filthy drains that overflow every monsoon, or the annual tragedies of building collapses. But the gap between lofty promises and vague roadmaps to get there has widened. What Mumbai needs is a scientific, data-driven overhaul of plans. Projects must be reoriented based on today’s needs and numbers, and must mandatorily provide capacity for today’s crowds. That would require a grounded and syncretic planning and execution. So long as ideas are lifted, without modification, from Shanghai or Dubai or elsewhere, hand-wringing at Mumbai’s unusual densities will continue. India’s only truly global city deserves better.