It was a disaster waiting to happen.
There were enough warnings, but nothing was done about it.
Instead of focusing on changing names of stations and getting a bullet train that few would be able to afford, the government should focus on improving infrastructure.
Why build a multi-crore-rupee statue that does not benefit anyone?
Mumbai has become a city where what’s broken isn’t fixed, yet new things are built so they may be broken.
These above were some of the reactions—the last one a tweet from actor Farhan Akhtar—online, in newspapers and on television, from citizens, reporters and “experts” after a stampede on the foot overbridge at the Elphinstone Road-Parel station in Mumbai killed 22 people on Friday.
Sorry, make that Prabhadevi station. The name was changed a few months ago, soon after Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus or VT) was renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.
Scores of people were squashed on the narrow bridge that connects the Parel and Elphinstone Road (as it is still referred to in daily usage) stations on the local central and western railway lines. Sudden, unexpected rain forced people to take shelter on the bridge and, as the numbers increased, panic set in.
The station is one of the few that connects the two main railway lines of the city—an important junction. It has been functioning since the late 19th century—Parel also has a railway workshop—and Elphinstone was named after the then-governor of Bombay.
People get off at these stations to access, on one side, major hospitals like Tata Memorial and KEM, besides shops, offices and residences of Parel. On the other side are the burgeoning businesses, hi-end retail and residences of Lower Parel and Prabhadevi. A lot of these are former mill lands, sold to developers and replaced with office buildings, malls, bars and restaurants.
Mill employees of yore worked in shifts, so the station didn’t have undue pressure from crowding. But that’s changed now. The population has increased, as have the number of commuters and white-collar workers. So peak rush hour leaves people little space to manoeuvre—on trains and stations.
I am one of the approximately 150,000 people who pass by this station daily. Though I rarely use the bridge where the incident happened, it’s among those in the city that shake; reports suggest that the panic was caused because people thought that the bridge would collapse.
Fortunately, I was not at the station at the time of the incident (a couple of colleagues left the station moments before the incident). But I could very well have been, and so could any of my colleagues and friends.
When I get off the train at Elphinstone Road, it’s not unusual to see the stairs leading out getting packed with people headed to work. I usually just wait at the platform for a few minutes for the crowd to subside, but several others don’t have the luxury of waiting.
The station, with its narrow platforms, dilapidated structure and slender bridges, lies in sharp contrast to what you see after exiting. One of the exits from the station, which is a bridge over the tracks, leads to Jagannath Bhatankar, the busy road connecting east and west.
When you get to this road, you see tall glass buildings dotting the skyline. It’s awe-inspiring to look around and gives the impression of being in another city—a contrast to the antiquity of the platform below. But you can’t just stand and gawk, though—you will get pushed along as the narrow exit that leads out of the station fills up quickly.
The path leading to and the staircase that goes down from one end of this bridge—towards our office building—is wide enough to allow for people to go along in just one line from both ends. People often trip on the loose blocks of tiles at the bottom of the stairs; regular commuters know how to expertly jump over them or step aside.
Another narrow road leads to the back entrance of the building—a lone car or motorcycle has to honk incessantly to get through the sea of people.
Almost everywhere on either side of the tracks outside the railway property, hawkers line up with shops. It’s impossible to walk without bumping into someone or something.
Travellers in this city are used to claustrophobia, but they bump, push, wriggle and negotiate for space—to stand, walk or oftentimes, run (after a train). They are also always in a hurry. With so many people on the move, they become indifferent to obstacles—not everybody steps aside for another or waits, but tries to barrel through.
For as long as I have been using the trains—close to two decades—it’s not changed much. There are a few more trains than before, but the number of travellers has increased too. Though the local train is considered Mumbai’s lifeline—an overwhelming majority of the population uses this mode of transport—it’s given less priority among infrastructural projects.
Over the years, various governments have invested time and money on roads, flyovers and bridges for the benefit of road travellers and private vehicles. Mumbai also has four times the number of cars compared to Delhi.
Though an incident like this has not happened before on Mumbai’s locals, they have suffered bomb blasts and terror attacks. After the 2008 terror attacks, stations installed metal detectors. Now, almost all of them lie unattended—you can walk through them or around, it doesn’t matter.
The central government has ordered an enquiry into Friday’s incident. Stopgap measures will be taken. Blames will be adequately placed. Aggrieved people will be compensated.
Denizens will keep complaining but life will continue as normal, keeping with the “spirit of Mumbai”—a phrase used to mask its residents’ indifference. Anger will subside or will be dissipated on blog posts. Lucky travellers who survived the stampede would be back using the same facilities because they don’t have a choice—me included.
Several people have pointed to other disasters waiting to happen: at other stations, public places, carpeted cinema halls (which have exits only at the bottom of the auditorium), malls whose doors leading to fire escapes do not open, cricket stadiums and on the city’s suffocating roads.
But little or nothing would be done to assuage those fears. Corruption, incompetence and apathy have corroded too much. Because the city does not have the time to ponder, to reflect, to correct and to fix what’s broken. It does not have the time to wait, because if you wait, someone behind you will push you along.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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