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Teetering on the edge

We may be able to launch cutting-edge ballistic missiles, but we can’t seem to do basic things such as plan for urban growth and transport people by train in safety. Ayaz Memon writes.

india Updated: Apr 22, 2012 00:58 IST
Ayaz Memon

One need spend barely a few minutes outside CST or Churchgate Station — the two best-known symbols of the city after the Gateway of India — and watch the Central and Western lines spew out thousands upon thousands of commuters to know what the railway services mean to Mumbai’s citizens.


Alas, sometimes these services also end up causing many deaths and untold misery, as we saw last week. Three young men died on Thursday after a pole jutting out near Mulund station hit them. The previous day, the Central Railway’s main and harbour lines collapsed because a fire broke out near a signal system at Kurla.

I have often wondered why Mumbai never got an underground railway system like London or Paris. Such a system dates back more than a century, so the technology wasn’t unknown. Perhaps stepmotherly treatment is the price for being a colonial subject. But even more dismaying is the lackadaisical approach we have taken since Independence in matters of public benefit.

Ironically, at around the same time as the rail accidents, India successfully launched Agni-5 into space, putting the country in the league of elite nations with such a capability. What this suggests is that while we are capable of making big technological and scientific leaps, we seem incapable of understanding the value of human life. In countries where space research is advanced, it is natural to expect the quality of everyday life to be high. Not so here. It’s a conundrum that needs serious study.

Of the more than seven million people that the suburban railway networks carry every day, between 10 and 15 people die in accidents, a rate that reveals the abysmal state of our safety procedures and, at a deeper level, our callous attitude towards human life.

The recent rail accidents showed how fragile the systems that drive the city are, and how easily we can fall over the edge. They highlight Mumbai’s two enduring problems: a burgeoning population and the lack of transport infrastructure.

Traditionally, because most government and corporate offices were located in the island city, the traffic would move in the north-south direction in the morning and back in the evening. As the city has grown, newer residents have settled in Thane and Navi Mumbai, rather than in the saturated south or expensive west, but most still have to travel to the island city for work.

At some stage, housing shortages, traffic jams and rising real estate rates were inevitable in the absence of a coherent plan to facilitate the expansion of the city’s services.

Policy makers did anticipate some of Mumbai’s problems, such as housing shortages and traffic jams. For instance, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority’s Regional Plan 1973 talks about how its main goals are “containing Mumbai’s growth, reducing congestion and over-crowding and bringing about balanced regional development through dispersal (sic) of population and economic activity.”

By 1985, the proposal had been adopted. The plan included developing townships outside Mumbai city and shifting major markets there. While some markets did move out, because township growth did not keep pace, the main magnet remained Mumbai city.

Most important, the government refused to shift. An update on the plan admits to a failure to decongest the city. The problem was not in ideation, which was bold and robust, but in execution and implementation.

But if the city has to thrive, it needs much better infrastructure, public transport and to use the phrase of the moment, good governance.

When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds.