Elphinstone Road stampede shows Mumbai needs bold, radical ideas
Commuters who make a staggering seven and a half million passenger trips a day on Western and Central Railways have been de-prioritised for decades by decision-makersmumbai Updated: Oct 05, 2017 01:42 IST
It took the snuffing out of 23 lives on a regular working Friday in a stampede at Elphinstone Road railway station for the powers-that-be in Delhi to take note. In the six days since, Mumbai’s commuters have seen prompt decisions taken than at any time in the last decade.
Commuters who make a staggering seven and a half million passenger trips a day on Western and Central Railways have been de-prioritised for decades by decision-makers. It didn’t help that at least three railway ministers in the last 18 years – George Fernandes, Ram Naik and Suresh Prabhu, all in National Democratic Alliance governments – were from Mumbai or had close acquaintance with the city.
Piyush Goyal, the newly-inducted railway minister, also with roots in Mumbai, called the Railway Board to meet in Mumbai that Friday night. It yielded a slew of decisions: Classifying foot over bridges (FOBs) as “mandatory” for commuter safety, widening 13 FOBs for which plans had been drawn up earlier, sanctioning 30 new FOBs, approving 90 escalators for stations with high footfalls, positioning security personnel to regulate movement on FOBs, installing closed circuit television cameras, empowering general managers of the railway zones to spend on commuter safety and so on.
These are long-pending and necessary decisions but they are not sufficient. They may offer some succour in the short-term, if that. And they do not fix accountability. Why did the widening of Elphinstone Road FOB not start despite sanction two years ago? Who delayed it? Who is answerable for the deaths and injuries? It is a shame that accountability for Friday’s tragedy was not fixed on any official. It is a continuing shame that nearly 10 commuters have died every day on the suburban railways for years now – with little response from the authorities.
Beyond such band-aid decisions, the state of affairs calls for bold and radical steps in which the safety and convenience of Mumbai’s commuters – railway, metro, bus, semi-public transport, pedestrians – must be prioritised above all else.
One, it is time to walk the talk on a unified transport authority for Mumbai including the two railway zones. The half a dozen authorities handling multi-modal transport function in silos; commuters do not travel that way. They need seamless, unbroken travel infrastructure. This cannot be hostage to the plans or working styles of general managers of the railways, or coordination between them and head honchos of the Metro and BEST bus undertakings.
Commentators have called for a separate Mumbai Railway Zone. It is an overdue idea and it may help improve suburban railway travel to some extent. But it still leaves the field open about inter-connectivity and seamlessness between different modes. A unified transport authority is likely to be resisted by the bureaucracy and the political class. But it is the idea of the future.
Two, this is the time to talk about an empowered city government, the one stop for all utility services, for all planning, execution, and maintenance of infrastructure in Mumbai. Large international cities do not function in a fragmented manner in which the local government has the least role while a host of agencies not directly answerable to citizens plan and execute projects worth millions. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Development Plan 2014-34 is basically a land-use plan, not a city plan.
What else is it but a serious lapse in urban planning that the old textile mill areas in central Mumbai – Lalbaug, Parel, Elphinstone Road – were treated as mere land parcels to be auctioned to highest bidders and developed without any reference to basic infrastructure around? If these areas were fashioned into new commercial hubs, it followed that transport services had to be upgraded. They were not. In fact, plans for holistic development of the area, including an upgrade of Elphinstone Road, were drawn up by the late planner-architect Charles Correa. It was nixed by the nexus of politicians-bureaucrats-builders.
Mumbai’s commuters deserve better than what they have got. Mumbai deserves better.