22 people died in stampede on the foot bridge at Elphinstone Road railway station on western railway in Mumbai. This sort of tragedy was waiting to happen! The blame game has already started, starting from railway administration to Mumbai Municipal Corporation. Activists have started blaming politicians depending on their affiliations. I am sure major part of blame has to go these agencies but the apathy that we as public show, the way we accept everything and anything is unbelievable. First a bit of history about Suburban Railways in Mumbai then known as Bombay.
The Mumbai Suburban Railway is an offshoot of the first passenger railway to be built by the British in India, and is also the oldest railway system in Asia. The first train ran between Bori Bunder (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and Thane, a distance of 34 km, on 16 April 1853 at 15:35. The 14-coach train took 1.25 hours to complete the 34 km journey, with a halt at Sion to refill the train’s water tanks. Since 1991, it has been expanded rapidly. (Wikipedia)
I have lived in Mumbai till 1975 and in those days, except for rush hours, going by trains was fun. In fact when I was in school we used to go by train for picnics! Things started changing after that. Infrastructure in those times was ok. To my understanding infra would include rakes, platforms, over bridges, ticketing windows, toilets, signaling and many such systems. This would also include exits from the station and entry to the station. The bridge where the event occurred was built in 1972 with maybe about 20 years projected traffic. Now it is 45 years!
My “latest” travel by these trains, maybe once or twice, was “about 18/20 years back. So I am not an authority to comment on the same. But I will share my experience with you. I went from Dadar station to Kandivali, it was a Sunday and I boarded the train at 7 pm. There was heavy rush and I somehow managed to travel, profusely sweating. When I reached my friends home, he said you are looking tired! I said there was so much rush on the train. He said, “Pramod today was Sunday that is the reason I invited you, Sunday’s are reasonably rush free days.” I had no comments. I once also traveled from Andheri to Dadar to go to VT. I caught a train around 4.30 am, reached Dadar; then for switching from western train to central train I walked the foot over bridge at 5 am. I could never imagine that at 5 am there could so much rush! Walking itself was a big deal. That day I decided that I will never travel in suburban trains in Mumbai, ever! Infrastructure was bursting through seams already. That was 20 years back.
Population in Mumbai in late 90’s was 9.9 million and now the population is 18 million! It has doubled. Railway system carries 7.5 million passengers daily. I don’t think the overall infrastructure increased proportionately. I am only looking from passenger perspective. Improvement in signals does not really improve passenger comfort. Passenger ingress and egress is the most important aspect along with capacity of the compartments. Outside most railway stations, there is chaos of taxis, autos, hawkers and what have you! Hawkers of course sit on the bridges too! Whatever space was there 40 years back, probably same space is available outside most stations but mostly occupied by the usual culprits. Large number of taxis and autos and hawkers occupy lion’s share out of that space.
This obviously shows that such accidents were waiting to happen. My friend Shashikant Limaye who is an expert in this field shared on TV how many plans have been made to improve infra and shelved. There was special World Bank loan sanctioned but was cancelled due to no progress by authorities, in the year 2007. I feel that both Central and State governments discuss issues as if they are third party to the problems and say that it is Railway departments responsibility. There are some good experts with heart at the right place but with mouth at the wrong place! Yesterday one of them was demanding that Maharashtra CM should resign as it is his personal responsibility. He also claimed that it is Prime Minister’s personal responsibility! Probably he said such things out of sheer frustration at the sheer apathy shown by all concerned!
Now let us take a mirror, open it and hold it in front of ourselves. Do we have public awareness as a society? We blame the hawkers for occupying space on bridges and space around stations. Do we ever consider of stopping to buy from them? If nobody buys what will they do? But while buying we look for convenience. A society gets government it deserves. All political leaders are from our own society. Those in Mumbai surely know the conditions more than senior leaders. Some of them must be using railway system daily. Has anyone ever raised concern, voice, over these issues seriously and loudly? The “VIP’s” of the politics never “know” these things as they have “open” roads and “closed” vehicles. I can understand that certain jobs may be available only in Mumbai e.g. film/TV related. But there may be many that will be available elsewhere too! So why not shift? I know it’s a tough call but at least think about it! Why cling and stick to a place? I don’t think salaries are so high in Mumbai that people don’t want to leave Mumbai. A cousin my mine who has now retired, moved to Bavdhan, Pune from Hindu Colony, selling everything lock stock and barrel! When I asked how he found the change, he simply said, “Why the hell I was living in Mumbai, God knows!”
Every day in Mumbai railway system, 8 to 10 people die because of various types of accidents. I don’t think any government is responsible for that. It has become so routine that these are hardly being reported. Why this apathy from people? Hundreds of thousands of people cross rail tracks every day and this causes deaths. Imagine everyday 8 to 10 times the train system goes on hold, due to death, there is domino effect of delays and consequential pressure increases on the system, every day. There are many things which have started coming out after the stampede. Parel in olden days was an area where there were mills and mill workers lived around the mills. Getting down at Parel and Elphinstone station was never on your priorities. After mill properties got developed in commercial properties, it seems one million people come to that area every day! This has happened in last ten years so, and system has started understanding it now.
I always hear of “Bombay Spirit”! It is a myth created by the media. What option do people of Bombay have? Once the Elphinstone station was “sanitized” after yesterday’s stampede, people started going on the same bridge, the same platform and same system! You have to go home is it not? Is this “Bombay Spirit”? What do you do? Stay in office for the day? Or walk home or what?
Let’s pray to God that better sense will prevail and people from various departments will sit together, plan and start actions. There are always immediate, short term, mid term and long term actions in any project. Something can always be started right away. For example if there are more than one bridge on a station with proper ingress & egress, out of sheer habit people will keep on using old bridge all the time. Make bridges “one way” where possible, it will straight away increase capacity by 50%. People will have to walk a little more. I see very long walkways in CBD area, and people prefer covered walkway; but they use this because there is no other option to cross the express way. Start merciless operation of fining heavily, people crossing the rail tracks! It is their responsibility “not” to cross the rail track! Removing hawkers from bridges and areas outside stations is possible but needs to be sustained over a period of time. This will need political will. Removing rikshaws and taxis from outside station is easily achievable. People should form a movement at all stations “Not to buy from hawkers”, it is their responsibility too! All in all every department, person, officer, and commuter should raise their hands and start to act.
Latest news is that Central Government has come into action and a lot of things are planned for suburban train system with a specific time frame. Let’s hope it works out.