Vithal Ganpat Pawar, a young man, lost one eye while travelling by the Central Railway suburban train on July 1, when he was hit by a stone near Vithalwadi station in one of those numerous incidents that make train commuting in Mumbai so hazardous.
The Mumbai suburban rail network is the most crowded in the world and many foreigners are impressed that it does such a spectacular job — of carrying more than six million people daily, half the number of people carried on the entire railway system in the country every day. But what is not realised is that ordinary people pay a heavy price and travel in the most humiliating conditions.
A day may come when people will take to burning and violence in rage at the intolerable conditions. This observation comes not from some left-wing radical but from a very conservative expert and was voiced some years ago by MQ Dalvi, a former consultant to the World Bank and the British government.
Since then things have only become worse. He and PG Patankar, another champion of public transport, had in a report for Tata Consultancy Services, in the 1990s recommended an underground metro for Mumbai.
This would have been preferable to the overground metro now under construction, which is encountering strong opposition from citizens as it will disrupt life in many areas in Mumbai, as is happening in Bangalore.
The public-private partnership concept embedded in the Mumbai metro project has not worked anywhere, argues R Sreedharan, the architect of the Delhi metro and the best-known expert on the subject in India. The project will also be a big drain on the state exchequer, argue architects Nitin Killawala and Hemoo Upadhyaya. The project ought to be funded by the government.
I have been travelling by suburban trains in Mumbai for the past 43 years. The only improvement I have noticed is that now the trains are newer, there are announcements in the rakes about the next station and there is better ventilation. But otherwise the conditions remain intolerable.
The problem is that the system looks at commuters not as human beings but as cargo merely to be transported from one point to another in the most mechanical way. The railways have strict rules on the number of animals that can be carried in a wagon of specified dimensions. A breach is punishable under railway rules and under the law relating to cruelty to animals. But no such rules apply to human beings.
That is why there is so much callousness towards the basic needs of commuters. Toilet facilities are shockingly inadequate, especially for women. The shameful state of affairs is graphically brought out in a report by the Observer Research Foundation. The new mass-produced stainless steel benches at railway stations are poorly designed and uncomfortable. The simple, old wooden benches were far better.
The ordeal of travelling begins from the time one enters a station. The bridges are hopelessly overcrowded and hazardous and it is a wonder there are not many stampedes. The underground passages at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Churchgate are unbearably hot, humid and suffocating with blinding light and heat generated by numerous shops. There is even a liquor shop in the Churchgate subway, which shows the priorities of the administration.
The huge demand for travel by people engaged in boosting the nation’s economy put the scale of economy entirely in favour of better facilities for the railways. In western countries, many more trains are run even when the number of commuters is far lower. In the era of climate change, fuel shortage and in the interest of economy, railway and other forms of mass transport systems must get top priority from the state government. But the system pampers private cars and air travel.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book,‘Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority’.