What caused Elphinstone Road stampede? How this tragedy exposes the problems suburban railway and urban infrastructure of Mumbai?

Published: October 9, 2017

The tragedy occurred on September 29, 2017 when a narrow bridge connecting Elphinstone Road and Parel stations got overloaded with commuters. The overcrowding of commuters was due to two reasons. First, it began raining and the commuters stopped at the top of the bridge waiting for the rain to stop. Second, as reported in media, someone shouted “Phool gir Gaya”, which led people to hear “Pull Gir Gaya” and resulting a trigger for chaos and stampede.

How this tragedy exposes the problems suburban railway and urban infrastructure of Mumbai?

The extensive reach and absence of equivalent alternative mode of local transport in Mumbai has resulted in intensive use of local trains that makes it one of the most overcrowded train systems in world. In the 9 compartment train, around 4500 people get stuffed during peak hours against the capacity of 1700 resulting in so called Super-Dense Crush Load (15 people standing per square meter of floor space). It is estimated that around 2000 people die every year on the Mumbai local train network. Most deaths occur due to overcrowding, people using tracks to avoid overcrowded footbridges etc.

This tragedy has exposed various problems in Mumbai’s sub-urban railway and overall infrastructure. It raises many questions as follows:

A question of political priority

A few months back, the government renamed Elphinstone road station as Prabhadevi station, so that it can get rid of a British legacy and it is named after local deity Prabhadevi. The political priority can be gauged from the fact that the resolution to change the name of the station was passed unanimously in the Maharashtra Assembly, however, nothing was done to change the footbridge or any other infrastructure at the station.

Further, Mumbai, like many other cities in India suffers from political will. The city’s development depends on who is leading it. In most cities around the world, the development work is overseen by a Mayor, who is politically elected. However, in case of Mumbai, the Mayor has been reduced to a figurehead and the real powers are with the Municipal Commissioner who is appointed by state government.

Growth in surrounding areas not accompanied by infrastrucre

The area around Parel, Dadar and Prabhadevi stations has been traditionally known for Mumbai’s textile mills and factories. A few decades ago, the textile and manufacturing activities decline in the area and their space was taken by service and other kind of commercial activities. This led to replacement of the mills and factories by high rise buildings having offices and residences. Such development caused dramatic increase in the number of commuters to and from this area and demanded some adaptive measures to be taken by authorities to develop the public transport infrastructure. The footfalls on these railway stations has long time back crossed their carrying capacity.

Questions on Coordination

The day of this tragedy saw two groups of policemen reach at the accident spot viz. Mumbai Police and Government Railway Police (GRP). Instead of coordination, an argument was visible over jurisdiction. The GRP claimed that the foot over bridge was made on BMC land and came under Mumbai police jurisdiction while Mumbai Police said that since the bridge is used by railway passengers, responsibility is of Railway police. Such is the state of coordination. It raises a question of lack of coordination among too many agencies, none of which is ready to take responsibility in event of tragedy.

Same is the conditions of road infrastructure as there are five agencies handling roads in the city viz.  BMC, State PWD, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation and Slum Rehabilitation Authority in some cases.

Question of Civic Apathy

A normal Mumbaikar is so absorbed in his day-to-day struggle that he / she find no relevance of politics in his / her life. During General and State elections, voting percentage remains abysmally low. Mumbai is actually trapped in a viscous cycle of civil and political apathy.

However, it is not that Mumbai’s problems are insurmountable. Despite of lack of enough space, the city has capacity to provide public services to a huge population. If right thinking and forward looking politicians and civil societies come together, Mumbai can beat the best of the cities in the world.

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