In the era of grand statues, expansion of century-old Mumbai suburban railway was delayed due to “paucity” of funds
By Kanchan Srivastava
“Pained, horrified but not shocked at all.” That’s how suburban Mumbai commuters reacted to Friday's stampede in which 23 people died and 39 were seriously injured.
The rush at the jam-packed exit bridge of Elphinstone Road (renamed Prabha Devi), one of the most prominent suburban railway stations in Mumbai, amid the downpour resulted in massive citizen’s outrage across the country prompting the Narendra Modi government to order the “highest level” probe into the incident and a “safety and capacity audit” of all Mumbai stations.
What is exceedingly horrific is the political and administrative apathy. Several people, activists, journalists and even politicians have warned the Indian Railways several times about this impending disaster. Their warnings and requests had fallen on deaf ears for years.
It has now emerged that work to expand the station’s narrow bridge was deferred because of a paucity of funds.
Responding to Shiv Sena MP Arvind Sawant’s request for a new foot-overbridge connecting the Western and Central Railway to ease traffic, the then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had cited a “paucity of funds” and “global slowdown” as the reasons for keeping the work under “positive consideration” even as he felt it was a “genuine need”.
In a letter dated February 20, 2016, Prabhu said, “Most of the requests which are received reflect the genuine needs and demands of the people and it is always our endeavour to agree to as many requests as possible. However, sometimes due to the paucity of finances, operational constraints or other compelling circumstances agreeing to the request may not be possible”.
The letter went on to state. “It has been one of the toughest years for the Indian Railways because of the adverse effects of the global slowdown. Even in these challenging times, the work (construction of 12 m wide new FOB connecting WR and CR after the extension of platform 1 and 2 towards the North-side by 100 meters) is under positive consideration.” Another Sena MP Rahul Shewale also wrote regarding the same in 2015.
“If the Railway ministry had paid heed to our requests, this incident could have been avoided,” Sawant rued on Friday. His party has already described it a “massacre” and demanded that the “railway” be booked for “murder charges”— a move that distances the party completely from the fiasco, leaving its ally, the BJP, to fend for itself. Prabhu could not be reached for his comment.
A project to expand the Parel-Elphinstone foot overbridge had been sanctioned in 2016. It is likely to be completed by 2019 the Railway Ministry clarified.
The stampede has once again brought the spotlight back onto mega projects proposed in the city, where 10 people die on the railway tracks every day while rushing to schools or workplaces. Citizens are questioning the rationale behind the Rs 80,000-crore bullet train project proposed to link the commercial capital with Ahmedabad, the Rs 2,500-crore Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea and the Rs 800-crore Ambedkar memorial. And they have every right to ask so.
This is despite the fact that Mumbai’s commuters pay the maximum revenue to railway coffers. “So far we have been treated like dirt by all political parties,” says Mahima Khan, a banker and an eyewitness to Friday’s disaster.
Rumours began to circulate that the bridge was falling, and hapless commuters on top of the stairs waiting for rains to stop thinking their worst fear of years had finally come true.
The century-old infrastructure and prolonged official callousness also prompted this belief. The new nomenclature of the station was the only new thing about it, immediately apparent as pictures of the station show.
Incidentally, Elphinstone Station is the same area where cardiologist Dr Deepak Amrapurkar drowned in an open manhole amid the heavy downpour last month.
Over 7.7 million people who take the over-packed Mumbai suburban trains every day in this decrepit railway witness such stampede-like situations every morning and evening while crossing narrow foot-over bridges, which are unable to handle the current passenger traffic, which has increased manifold since its British planners left.
Nothing can truly describe the dangerous journey passengers are forced to suffer twice a day, year after year. Only those who have travelled on Mumbai’s local trains during rush hour know this dread.
This area had been the textile centre of Mumbai till three decades ago. The defunct mills are gradually being replaced by high-rise commercial towers which house MNCs, banks and even media houses. Lakhs of workers now commute to the area, most of them by suburban trains on the Western and Central Railway and Elphinstone station is one of the few stations for the change-over.
“This station was not made to handle such huge passenger traffic as of today. Change in profile has increased the station burden manifold over the years. Though new rail services were added, the exit and entry points did not expand in the same ratio which results in mishap like situation every day,” a railway journalist from Mumbai, Binoo Nair, told us.
Even the Comptroller and Auditor General’s 2016 report had pointed that the Mumbai suburban railway infrastructure is unable to accommodate the present traffic. “Indian Railway has not been able to provide adequate numbers of services as per the rising passenger traffic leading to overcrowding and deaths of passengers.”
The report also points out how over 17,000 people died in five years — half of the total rail deaths in India! Of them, nearly 4,400 die after falling from the train which comes to a daily average of 10-12 which is appalling and unacceptable in most countries we aim to copy.
The auditors also pointed out that passenger traffic has gone up by up to 17 percent between 2010 and 2015 but carrying capacity has gone up by merely 3 percent and 6 percent respectively.
Even the budgetary promises of an additional 75 new services made in 2012 were not fulfilled. The report reveals, “Only 20 services in CR and 37 in WR were added by the end of 2015.”