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Fatal Planning

Will urban planners learn from the death of 23 rail passengers in Mumbai?

On the morning of 29September, Mumbai learnt with mounting horror that 22 persons—the 23rd succumbed later—were crushed to death on a railway foot overbridge at Elphinstone Road Station on the Western Railway zone of Mumbai’s suburban railway network. A majority of the huge crowd of commuters would have been heading towards the offices and commercial complexes that have come up in the past decade on the land of the now closed mills in the area. An unexpected bout of heavy rain led to a jam at the exit point of the narrow bridge that turned into a deathtrap as commuters from incoming trains joined the mass. The incident brought to the fore failures at various levels, with the prime ones being the lack of a responsive disaster management mechanism and a lack of planning that dovetails land use with the needs of an increasing commuting population. These are failures that not only plague a city that has grown inured to many human-made disasters, but also most urban centres in the country, and its lessons would be relevant too, if they are taken to heart.

The financial capital of the country and its immediate suburbs reached a saturation point almost a decade ago. However, the public transport system linking the new residential hubs in the extended suburbs to the commercial spaces in south and central Mumbai has simply not kept pace. These spaces also suffer from heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic congestion that is not helped by the lack of coordination between the various bodies like the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the railway authorities. More metro and monorail stations, which will become operational soon, will only add to the congestion. Again, Mumbai’s new proposed development plan focuses on providing employment space for 80 lakh persons and is depending on additional metro systems and the controversial coastal road project to take the potential load off the rail network. This, say urban transport experts, is an unrealistic assumption and doomed to be outrun by increasing human and vehicular traffic. The authorities also failed to heed experts’ objections to the building of a monorail in the eastern suburbs, which seems to be in no position to take the passenger load off the trains. Similarly, the Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation (MRVC) has failed to meet its larger aim of enhancing the suburban rail transportation capacity.

Many of Mumbai’s unique characteristics are interlinked with the suburban rail network. These range from the mobility of its women and the “safety” they enjoy due to trains running for almost 22 hours daily, it being the most extensive and cheapest form of transport contributing immensely to the city’s famed resilience—decidedly growing thinner of late—and the work ethic of its working population, both blue- and white-collared, and an entire microcosm of the self-employed who sell everything, from flowers and hairpins to vegetables, fruits and books. Residential and commercial complexes have grown around railway stations, almost like civilisations around river banks of old, and these include buildings, slums and shanties. The bad news is that this growth is neither planned nor regulated in the far-flung suburbs, while in the central parts of the city frenzied building of “towers” continues and whose occupants will emerge onto narrow and congested roads.

The result is that lakhs of commuters travel everyday at a level of near suffocation in the compartments and traverse old bridges in a heaving mass that can well lead many to get panic attacks. After all this, they are expected to adhere to the famous Mumbai ethic and exhibit resilience in the face of hardship. The suburban rail system sees trains, each with the capacity to carry 1,700 passengers, ending up with nearly 4,500 passengers and still falling short in transporting the daily traffic of around 75 lakh commuters. The burgeoning volume of passengers in both zones—Western Railway and Central Railway, including the Harbour Line—has led to a horrifying number of deaths due to falling from overcrowded compartments and crossing of tracks (foot overbridges are either non-existent, old and inadequate, or are situated only at one end of a long platform) making hopping across tracks far more convenient. The statistics are well known: 10 deaths daily. In 2016, the total number of deaths was 3,202 with 3,363 injured, and this year has seen 1,618 accidental deaths.

As with other long-simmering problems, solutions are not wanting. These range from basics like better-maintained rail tracks and signalling systems to an independent authority for the suburban rail network, building multi-modal transport to absorb the strain of the railways, and creation of east–west corridors. Mumbai’s once famous protest culture has now been subsumed by one of “acceptance.” Its citizens must demand that politicians stress on responsive planning and implement the solutions listed above.



Social Media Image: Representational Image. Nikkul/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Updated On : 7th Oct, 2017


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