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Mumbai, no city for pedestrians

In the hierarchy of Mumbai’s infrastructure plan, people who walk languish at the very bottom.

mumbai Updated: Jul 26, 2018 10:58 IST
Smruti Koppikar
Smruti Koppikar
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Mumbai’s infrastructure,no city for pedestrians
(HT File Photo)

That photograph of tens of people crammed into a narrow alley beneath the Delisle Bridge is the story of Mumbai in one frame. It tells us about a horrific stampede waiting to happen with one misplaced word or step, the callousness of authorities, the unplanned development of central Mumbai as a business district, the blatant disregard for commuter safety and inconvenience, and, above all, the fate of pedestrians.

Cracks in the British-era Delisle Bridge meant that it was declared “unsafe” by a team comprising officials of Western Railway, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and experts from IIT-Bombay.

It was shut for vehicular and pedestrian movement on Tuesday morning. It was done to protect people but, of course, did not take stakeholders on board.

Motorists struggled for hours on alternative routes. Pedestrians were the hardest hit. As throngs of Mumbaiites from Lower Parel or Currey Road stations made their way to plush high rises that house corporates in the area, they found themselves in a super-dense crush. Some said they took an hour or two to negotiate the 14-20 minute stretch. A stampede could have happened any second.

There are at least three issues here.

There is no doubt that the authorities took preventive action to avert a tragedy like the Gokhale Bridge. There were some police personnel along the lane. An ad hoc pathway was opened. But the authorities were not prepared to handle repairs and upgrade the city’s old infrastructure; there’s no plan or protocol in place.

Citizens should have been notified of the closure of the bridge in advance, alternative pedestrian routes should have been marked out and adequately publicised, corporates in the area could have been asked to stagger work timings. If the intent is to ensure safety and convenience for people, the means are many.

The second issue is the rapid, haphazard and property-led development of the area as a buzzing business district with millions pouring into and out of it every day. Lower Parel, Elphinstone Road, Parel and Currey Road were at the heart of the textile mill area with lakhs working in them, but a large number of workers lived in chawls close to their workplaces. Only a section of them used the suburban railway infrastructure.

As mills were parcelled off to real estate players and high rises came to house corporate offices, almost all the working population uses the roads or trains. The central Mumbai stations have never seen such large commuter crowds. The infrastructure did not measure up, it was not upgraded. There has been a mis-match for years now; last year’s stampede at Elphinstone Road (now renamed Prabhadevi, as if that helps) and this year’s photograph tell us how deep it is.

This ties in with the third aspect which is that pedestrians are nobody’s responsibility or agenda. In the hierarchy of Mumbai’s infrastructure plan - there is a subtle unstated hierarchy there - pedestrians have languished at the very bottom. Though huge in numbers far out-stripping motorists — a staggering 44% to 48% walk some distance to work — pedestrians do not form a critical mass with one voice.

They have been ignored by Mumbai’s policy makers, fancy projects are not for them, they have the smallest budget outlay from government and civic funds. But they bear the brunt of Mumbai’s transport chaos. Pedestrians were the single highest category of Mumbaiites dying in road accidents, at 52% to 57% in the last few years, according to Mumbai Police.

Pavements are shrinking or non-existent; or are taken up by hawkers.

Crossings at road intersections are not standardised, some offer only five to 10 seconds, unmindful of the distance or needs of senior citizens and children.

That photograph is unlikely to get authorities to right the transport policies skewed in favour of motorists. If it sensitises them to improve the plight of Mumbai’s pedestrians somewhat, it would have served its purpose well.

First Published: Jul 26, 2018 10:57 IST