What led to the tragedy at Prabhadevi (still mostly referred to as Elphinstone) Station? What, if anything, could have stopped it? What can we do about it now?

To understand the anatomy of a stampede is the first step. Elphinstone Station, as Prabhadevi was once known, has a lone footbridge opening up to the western side of the station—where most offices in the area are located. Barely six feet wide, this footbridge has been put under increasing strain over the last few years. According to police estimates, over one lakh people use this footbridge during peak traffic hours, and people enter the bridge from several different directions. The chaos that ensues pushes the density of people on the bridge up to 10 people per square feet. This was the most obvious cause of the stampede itself. As John J. Fruin (1993) said:

“At occupancies of about 7 persons per square meter the crowd becomes almost a fluid mass. Shock waves can be propagated through the mass, sufficient to... Propel them distances of 3 meters or more... People may be literally lifted out of their shoes, and have clothing torn off. Intense crowd pressures, exacerbated by anxiety, make it difficult to breathe, which may finally cause compressive asphyxia. The heat and the thermal insulation of surrounding bodies cause some to be weakened and faint. Access to those who fall is impossible. Removal of those in distress can only be accomplished by lifting them up and passing them overhead to the exterior of the crowd."

According to recent studies (Helbing et al, 2007), it is often not the density alone that kills people. The crowd dynamics are to blame too. When the density is so high, physical interaction between people causes a chain reaction. At such high densities, force travels from one body to another at a rapid pace. At Elphinstone, it appears that people were already assembled in such high densities. The force chains that form in such crowds are hard to predict, exacerbated by the fact that attempts at relief often backfire spectacularly.

People tried to help children and women, but ended up falling on top of them. This lead to further casualties. This caused an uncontrollable collective dynamic to occur in the crowd, which is called “crowd turbulence" or “crowd quake" (Johannason et al, 2008). The crowd itself, acting like a fluid, becomes a force so powerful that even large numbers of police personnel find themselves inundated, and incapable of managing the situation. The police on ground at Elphinstone watched haplessly as the situation on the bridge worsened because they couldn’t even enter the crowd itself. Individuals ended up being even more vulnerable. They were exposed to a large risk of losing balance and stumbling. This lead to an obvious “domino effect", eventually leading to suffocation.

In situations like these, it is easy to explain away crowd behaviour as a hysterical reaction. Gustav Le Bon, who can arguably be called the father of crowd psychology, wrote The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind in 1895. He believed that crowd behaviours are inherently pathological and abnormal, and the mere existence of a crowd can, and will, cause civilized consciousness to vanish and be replaced by savage animal instincts. According to him, individuals, when they become one with a crowd, lose all sense of self and responsibility. They no longer identify themselves as individuals with responsibility for their own actions, but instead, as members of a group, acquire powers of anonymity. This lends to them a definite sense of power and invincibility.

Le Bon’s work has educated crowd control and riot management techniques for decades all over the world. But more recent work suggests many problems with this approach of collective hysteria.

As Joseph W. Bendersky (2007) points out in context of the American military’s crowd management capacity, Le Bon espoused the “law of the mental unity of crowds", which asserts that the behavioural characteristics of a crowd are distinctively, and often destructively, different to the characteristics of the individuals that make up the same crowd. It is to be noted that a lot of the Indian police’s crowd management systems still exist in Le Bon’s theories (Sindu, 2016). This is very problematic, since Le Bon’s theory does not take into account the crowd’s context—their everyday behaviours, habits, and idiosyncrasies. Indeed, it actively removes the crowd action from its social underpinnings.

Crowds like the one at Elphinstone are habitual ones, made up of patterns that are easily learned and observed. This idea also actively legitimizes brutal, aggressive repression. By effectively bracketing crowds as “unreasonable", this theory justifies use of violence to control crowds (Reicher, 1996).

We know that the crowds were large and primed for disaster, but they were not violent. Local train stations in Mumbai rarely are. They run like giant, intricate creatures that lumber on despite all the reasons they have not to. According to people on ground, the rough series of events unfolded something like this: a sudden downpour caused people to scramble up the footbridge that connects the Elphinstone and Parel stations. The railing, a narrow strip of metal, groaned under pressure, causing people to assume the bridge is falling. Rumours of a short circuit caused people to panic, and a few attempted to jump off the bridge to relative safety.

There is an important distinction to be made here. Most crowd disasters are not panic-driven stampedes. They’re craze-driven crushes. People at events like concerts move towards something, causing a disaster. What happened in Mumbai was because people were terrified. They were the victims, and hence the most vulnerable stakeholders. No one in the crowd could have possibly caused the stampede, and no one could have prevented it. So, who’s responsible?

Additional director general of railways (police), Jai Jeet Singh, points out that the police on the ground was essentially helpless because of the infrastructure. A crowd of the density that the bridge was housing is, in his words, “not something we can control". The infrastructure itself was primed to improve back in 2015, when demands for an increase in the size of the footbridge were made to former railway minister Suresh Prabhu by Shiv Sena MP Rahul Shewale. A sanction of Rs11.86 crore for the construction of a foot overbridge was made, and the demand was reiterated by Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant via a letter in 2016. The status of that construction is unknown, with the money apparently spent on a bridge on the eastern, lesser used side of the station.

What isn’t a mystery, however, is that people have been immensely worried about this bridge. Social media is rife with posts about it for the past few years, with people trying desperately to bring to light the plight of passengers.

What happened at Elphinstone could have, at least, been delayed a few years with superior crowd management techniques. There are ample models available, and ample scope of improvement. The police in India is trained to “control" crowds, not “manage" them. Concepts like stewardship, car-following models (which echo how schools of fish find their way around an overcrowded feeding spot) and basic disaster management systems are all nascent for our forces.

Officers like Singh are trying to bring about a change by studying models like those followed by the London Underground. However, these will take time and political will—both of which are lacking. The Indian system of executive policing is also marked by a noted absence of any lateral expertise, which leaves the forces unequipped with the latest work done in the field. Holistic, non-aggressive crowd management in India is a while away, yes. But new infrastructure, the need for which has been stressed upon by urban planners, pedestrian movement experts, transport experts and civic architects, isn’t.

The simple addition of another footbridge on the western side of the platform, an extension of the width of the platform itself, and permanent barricades maintaining the inflow and outflow of the foot traffic will cost the government a minuscule sum when compared to what it’s willing to spend on vanity projects, and would serve a much larger number of people.

The stampede will have the government scrambling to bring the project back to life and have a bridge up in the next few months, but Singh believes it will not help. According to him, knee-jerk reactions meant to solely appease an angry citizenry are useless, because they don’t address the underlying causes of these disasters. The construction conducted by the railways is also extremely slow and hampering, as seen by the renovations at the Borivali station.

The renumbering of the platforms at Borivali, which is the latest phase of the same, has taken over three months, and will probably take more. The construction of a footbridge, or an extension to the existing one, at a station as busy as Elphinstone, will take a long time, and will show no immediate results.

“You need to make sure the ingress and egress crowds are separated and not allowed to mingle," Singh says. “That’s the only way to make sure the density doesn’t rise to such dangerous levels again." He does have an immediate suggestion for helping ease out the crowd crush, however. He suggests staggering office timings on an hourly basis, especially in professional hubs like Lower Parel. This would allow a steady, better managed crowd to move in and out of the station without the threat of a stampede. As he says, “There is no reason for people to continue with inefficient systems."

These systems are not just inefficient, though. They are life-threatening. No one should have to go through a gauntlet in the name of public transport to reach work and back. The famed “spirit of Mumbai" is going to rear its exhausted head again, but mostly because it has no other choice. The city, as a whole, has reached a point of apathy and disillusionment; the fact that an average of nine people die daily in train-related accidents does not elicit anything but a tired shrug. 3,202 people died in 2016. The number was higher in 2015, with 3,304 dead, according to information released to activist Sameer Jhaveri under a Right to Information application.

This indifference is exploited by the government in power.

It is time to be angry, yes. But it is also time to reflect and question. Governments running unchecked and brazen despite being directly responsible for these deaths are responsible. Civic bodies that do not take citizen sentiment into account are responsible. You and I, with our ability to reach out to people on various levels to educate them, are responsible because we decided not to do the same.

The systems are either missing or irreparably broken, and individual effort leads to very little change. It’s a difficult situation to be in, but one that should galvanize collective action. As taxpayers, as citizens, as Mumbaikars, we deserve better. This city has made us, and it’s time to accord it with the respect and improvement it deserves. This starts from us.

Harnidh Kaur is a policy analyst with research interests in crowd management and gendered perspectives on public health, sanitation, and privacy. She completed her Masters in Public Policy from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She can be found on Twitter at @pedestrianpoet.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com