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Panel on Elphinstone Road station stampede raises more questions than it answers

It seems terribly shortsighted of the Railways not to have factored how redevelopment of Parel area would impact commuter traffic on local stations.

mumbai Updated: Oct 12, 2017 23:17 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Elphinstone Road,stampede
23 people died in the stampeded on September 29.(HT)

The five-member committee appointed by the Western Railway to probe the Elphinstone Road station stampede on September 29 tabled its report on Tuesday. But while speedy completion of inquiry is laudable, the conclusion reached raises more questions than it answers.

The committee, after speaking to various people and sifting through all evidence, puts the blame for the horrific tragedy that claimed 23 lives on an act of god and a rumour, absolving the railway authorities of any errors of omission and/or commission.

A sudden downpour of heavy rains, says the report, had people running for shelter, and the situation was aggravated by a flower vendor who started shouting ‘majha phool padla’ (my flowers have fallen) which was misconstrued as ‘my pul (bridge) has fallen’, triggering panic.

If not downright obfuscation, this explanation reveals puerile imagination to twist responsibility for the tragedy in a direction where accountability is impossible to assign. How do you bring god to book?!

It’s not that the heavy rain and rumour would have played no part in the stampede. The moot question, however, is whether these were the root causes or just precipitating factors. I am hard-pressed to believe that anybody who has lived in Mumbai long enough would buy the official theory.

The stampede took place in the last week of September when the monsoon was still in full form. In fact, this was the period when the meteorological office had warned about impending thunder showers that could disrupt everyday life. What precautions had been put in place?

Surely doing this was incumbent on the railway authorities, more so since Mumbai had had another torrid monsoon. Frequently during the season, apart from the roads getting potholed once again, there had been flooding, causing severe problems, especially to commuters — road as well as rail.

That the flower vendor triggered even greater panic is not impossible to believe, but is also could not have been entirely unexpected. The much touted ‘Spirit of Mumbai’ is part fact, part myth. In fact, the balance is tilting towards the latter for most people — especially commuters — live on edge, struggling with the everyday hardship.

Interestingly, the actual reasons for the stampede emerge in the recommendations — short, medium and long term — submitted by the five-member committee in its report. These are 14 in number of which three are so crucial that these should have been in place a long time back:

a) Additional RPF staff to be deputed during peak hours

b) Hotline communication/walkie-talkie should be given for prompt communication

c) Proper footfall at station should be ascertained by hiring a professional agency

Of these, the first two are no-brainers. They are low-cost and require no more than an administrative order and some basic equipment. The crux, however, is the third one.

It seems terribly shortsighted of the Railways not to have factored how redevelopment of Parel area would impact commuter traffic on local stations. Common understanding is that this has increased 10-fold while the infrastructure has remained the same.

More damagingly, the Notice Inviting Tender (NIT) for expanding the foot overbridge (FOB) to twice its size (which would have prevented the stampede) had been delayed for more than 18 months.

A three-man committee has now been announced to ensure against such delays in the future, but obviously it can’t bring back to life the 23 people who died on September 29 for no fault of theirs.

Crowd control has always been a combustible problem in India, irrespective of whether in places of worship, cricket matches or Mumbai’s suburban train travel; more particularly the latter since this is a day-to-day affair.

And who would know it better than the previous railway minister, Suresh Prabhu, or the current one Piyush Goyal, both from this city with long and first-hand experience of this commute, the travails and dangers it entails.

One would have expected contrition, accepting administrative failure, and fixing responsibility. Playing passing the buck is no solace to those who’ve lost heir near and deat.

Sadly, human life in India still comes cheap and secondary to political one-upmanship. If there is one lesson from the Elphinstone Road tragedy, it is that this equation needs to be overturned. Asap.

First Published: Oct 12, 2017 23:17 IST