Making a pitch for the Smart Cities project in 2015-16, the Mumbai municipality said that nearly Rs 2 lakh crore have been invested in the Lower Parel region in recent years, and claimed that nearly 14 per cent of the city’s GDP is generated there. The former mill lands offer employment to 0.98 million, making this area a key central business district, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation said.
But the suburban railway stations that service this major hub of commerce, finance, entertainment, media and tertiary services — Lower Parel, Parel, Elphinstone Road, Currey Road and Chinchpokli — and their infrastructure remain largely colonial-era structures.
While the foot overbridge on which Friday’s stampede that killed 22 people took place was built in 1972, over two decades before the transformation of the mill lands happened, the road overbridge it leads to dates back to 1918.
As this village of mills, formerly Girangaon, witnessed an unprecedented real estate boom from the FSI (Floor Space Index) bonanza, transport infrastructure planning was never dovetailed with new land-use plans, says urban planner Sulakshana Mahajan, who undertook several studies on urban transportation and land use for the government-backed Mumbai Transformation Support Unit (MTSU).
”A mill typically had 150 sq ft of space per worker, or about 150 workers in a 15,000-sq ft space. But mills only had a ground floor, and their FSI (the ratio of built-up area to plot area) was 0.5. In the same space, you now have multi-storeys with FSI of 2 or 3. So for every 1,000 mill workers, you now have maybe 9,000 to 10,000 employees in commercial office spaces. You have about 10 times more employees in this region now as compared to before the mill lands were opened up. But there is no affordable residential spaces for them nearby so they come by trains from the distant suburbs… the mill-workers lived nearby,” Mahajan told The Indian Express.
The number of railway commuters boarding and alighting at Parel on Central Railway and Elphinstone Road on Western Railway has grown exponentially, shows a study for the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation in 2011-12.
The highest section load (number of passengers aboard trains between sections) in the morning hours on Western Railway is observed on the Dadar-Elphinstone Road section, with 1,43,690 passengers on the Up direction in just the one hour between 8.30 am and 9.30 am, the survey found. There is no accurate data on section load prior to the 1990s, but senior railway officials estimate that the load has nearly doubled since three decades ago.
Today, Parel and Elphinstone Road stations together witness sales of more than 75 lakh tickets annually. Over 1 lakh people use this foot overbridge daily, railway officials estimate, perhaps 8-10 times more than in 1972 when the bridge was built.
”Before the 1990s, this area was entirely occupied by the working classes, whether it’s the mill workers or those employed in other factories, such as Glaxo or Mahindra in Worli. And these workers all lived in the same area,” says Datta Iswalkar, leader of the Girni Kamgar Sangharsh Samiti, an association of former millworkers.
”Now, while the character of the city and this area has changed dramatically, there is not enough policy intervention on either transport infrastructure or rehabilitating or rebuilding the old chawl buildings,” he says.
A study by MTSU in the nearby C Ward area showed that while the resident population was 1 lakh, the day density was 5 lakh owing to the floating population of those employed in the area. Planners believe the same is true for the Lower Parel-Parel-Elphinstone Road area, with an estimated 10 lakh people visiting daily, raising day density sharply.
Simultaneously, the completion of the World Bank-funded Mumbai Urban Transportation Project (MUTP) has led to the augmenting of railways’ carrying capacity, with 12-coach trains instead of the nine-coach carriers. But development of these station structures and associated infrastructure has not been commensurate.
The pedestrian space on the road overbridge outside the Elphinstone station is barely one-metre wide. The road overbridge itself was built by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway in 1913 and is equally congested, witnessing long traffic pile-ups like many other roads in the area.
Property consultant Anuj Puri says Lower Parel witnessed a huge realty boom because the government opened up the large tracts of mill lands just when Nariman Point was offering no new commercial spaces. “Corporates seeking larger spaces found the Lower Parel region ideal because of the large new developments, its central location and the fact that the Bandra-Kurla Complex was comparatively expensive,” says Puri. Even today, office space vacancy is higher in Nariman Point than in central Mumbai.
This boom has taken place with almost no exhaustive studies on job density per acre or residential density per acre in the former mill lands. Neither the railways nor the BMC has any data on how many jobs exist in this business district in every building, how many of those workers use the railways, etc.
Darryl D’monte, who wrote ‘Ripping The Fabric: The Decline Of Mumbai And Its Mills’ in 2002, said the trans-harbour sea link may be an important aspect of transport planning for these former mill areas, allowing people to live in Navi Mumbai and work here, reducing the pressure on Elphinstone Road and adjoining railway stations.