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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

How tolerant should Mumbaiites be of bad roads, unsafe bridges?

In any other international city, the person in charge would have stepped up after an incident

mumbai Updated: May 10, 2019 07:01 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
The foot overbridge leading to CSMT collapsed on March 14, 2019.
The foot overbridge leading to CSMT collapsed on March 14, 2019. (HT Photo)

It will be two months, next week, since the Himalaya foot overbridge collapsed, snuffing out the lives of seven people and injuring more than 30. Much has happened since that fateful March evening regarding the condition of foot and road overbridges in Mumbai – senior officials of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation have been arrested, the old audit of bridges revisited, new audit or re-audit begun, demolition or repair work undertaken – but there are no assurances yet that we are not walking into, over or under a death trap.

In any other international city, the person in charge would have stepped up after such an incident to assure citizens of the steps taken to make bridges safer, lay out a plan, enlist participation of citizens as a confidence-building measure, and apologise. Yes, apologise for the errors of omission and commission that have led to such a pass. Neither chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who runs a ‘war room’ to oversee the city’s infrastructure projects, nor Mumbai’s municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta, had the grace to apologise to us.

Let alone an apology, we Mumbaiites do not even have critical and comprehensive information about bridges in hazardous or unsafe conditions. It’s difficult for us to know if an FoB or RoB is listed for major repairs or unsafe for use. Among the RoBs requiring major repairs are Dadar Tilak bridge, Elphinstone Road bridge and Grant Road bridge – all arterial bridges used round the clock and usually congested.

In fact, there is no way to ascertain that audits are not compromised – the audit of 2016 had listed the Himalaya bridge as requiring only minor repairs. It had advised the demolition of 11 bridges in the suburbs. The re-audit after the Himalaya bridge collapse, done by the same firms, reportedly lists 17 bridges for demolition. Which are the additional six? How do we know if this re-audit is trustworthy?

This is not mere apathy of the state government or the BMC, it smacks of their callousness and contempt for average citizens. Sure, four senior BMC officials, including the retired chief engineer (bridges), have been arrested but the buck has stopped there. It did not roll to the highest officer, the municipal commissioner, whose administration did not follow orders of even the Bombay high court on potholes. It provoked the HC to comment, ironically a day before the Himalaya bridge collapse, that Mumbaiites’ “high level of tolerance” had allowed the BMC to be apathetic.

Do we have a choice? Can we perpetually be in agitation mode? Does the CM or municipal commissioner even pay attention to agitators?

Their cavalier attitude to bridges is part of the pattern which appears discriminatory against average citizens. Infrastructure development has come to mean large-scale, high-value projects. It’s an unmistakable pattern in Mumbai’s transport framework: existing and affordable public transport facilities are neglected (roads, pavement, bridges) or allowed to bleed (BEST) while the city is re-constructed with flyovers, elevated corridors, and coastal roads.

The latter are sold to us as public transport. Indeed, they use public resources and land, but from construction to use and maintenance, they are modelled for private revenues coming primarily from private transport used by a select and small section of Mumbaiites. Often, they remain under-utilised. The Bandra-Worli Sea Link is an example; the eight-lane road on sea designed for 1,20,000 vehicle crossings a day registers just close to 37,000. Meanwhile, millions of us using public transport facilities risk our life and limb every day.

The BMC and government’s primary responsibility should be to make sure that roads are motor-worthy; potholes not recur in the same spots year after year; pavements be even and clear of debris or obstacles, and FOBs and ROBs be in good condition. This work won’t get them the headlines, it will call for courage to break the nexuses which exist between the BMC system and contractors, but it has to be done to ensure safety and comfort for maximum Mumbaiites. In this, they have all but failed. Every bridge collapse or pothole death brings out our lament and outrage, then tolerance takes over. Just how tolerant should we be?