Mumbai's Elphinstone stampede: A failure of governance

Last Updated: Thu, Oct 05, 2017 16:13 hrs
Elphinstone stampede

In a sprawling, crowded and fast moving metropolis like Mumbai, people get from one place to another is a variety of ways. The local trains are a lifeline for millions. Crowded stations and even more crowded trains are a common place. On Thursday October 28th, a stampede at the Elphinstone railway bridge killed 23 people as the rush and chaos created a situation where people were trapped.

To provide some context, an editor at Moneycontrol posted a picture of a foot over bridge at another station to draw comparison.

The Hindu editorial stated that the stampede was preventable and blamed neglect –

“The financial capital depends mainly on the 300 km suburban system, which has some of the highest passenger densities for any city railway in the world. Yet, it has no single accountable manager”.

“The Elphinstone Road station stampede should lead to a course correction and re-ordering of mass transport in all cities. Augmenting the creaking and broken infrastructure at suburban stations should be a high priority, and with good management practices, this can be achieved speedily”.

To the point of good management practices, this was sorely lacking as per multiple news reports, there were warning about the poor state of the Elphinstone foot over bridge. The Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had sanctioned Rs.12 crore to renovate the bridge but only Rs.1000 as allocated.

In an interview to the Indian Express, Dr. Ashok Tripathi states that after an inspection in April by members of the passenger amenities committee (PAC) appointed by the Railway Ministry, there were warnings issued to the ministry about this specific bridge. In the interview, he says in part, “Minutes after my team and I walked on the bridge at the station, the shoddy nature of the work was reflected”. He also said, “I recall giving a piece of my mind to all senior railway officials who were present there. I scolded them for the way in which work was being carried out”.

The Hindu editorial comes down hard on the Railway ministry for their part in the tragedy-

“Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has called for a quick survey of the suburban stations to identify areas of concern, but this is something that should have been done without waiting for a disaster, and it must now be extended to all cities”.

“The immediate requirement to end civic bedlam is to remove physical and policy bottlenecks: clear pathways inside and adjoining railway stations of obstacles, install escalators, create multiple entry and exit points, and put in place an organized feeder transport network to stations and bus termini. The families of the dead and the injured should be given exemplary compensation, to reinforce the accountability of the railway administration”.

The Mumbai police will also begin an inquiry into incidents of molestation and theft that occurred during the stampede. Eyewitness reports indicate that women trapped on the bridge during the stampede were molested and there were reports of theft immediately after the incident.

The Mid-Day editorial stated that the key to safety apart from officials’ duties is in the hands of the commuters and the public –

“While broadening bridges and upgrading infrastructure is necessary in the long term, there are immediate measures that need to be taken up, such as improving announcement systems across all stations”.

“Mumbaikars must also use their good sense to dismiss politicians trying to use a tragedy to earn points. Do what is in your power, mobilize opinion for better facilities and become a responsible commuter yourself”.

The call now is for smart urban governance, for all large metros. The sheer number of people and vehicles on the move at any given time is certainly a challenge for any city in general. Certain geographical characteristics also bring about challenges particular to a city. In a joint op-ed for The Hindu, Sahil Gandhi an Assistant Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Vaidehi Tandel a Junior Fellow, IDFC Institute write on the urban upgrade to smart governance-

“A key reason is the absence of coordination among the many public organizations undertaking various civic and infrastructure-related functions in the city and metropolitan region. There is no joint formulation of transport plans in tandem with land use plans by various administrative bodies”.

“Coordination and cooperation among all public authorities concerned needs to take place not just in response to a crisis but as a regular and routine feature of the governance set-up. This requires a single coordinating agency”.

Sahil Gandhi and Vaidehi Tandel write on a broad, general and important basis or coordination between local agencies to assess the infrastructural and civic needs. Specifically to Mumbai and the station in question, Darryl D’monte, an environmental journalist for a column in The Wire writes on why the Elphinstone and similar stations are congested, stating that the city gained many high rises and resulting increase in people using the station was more than what could be handled –

“Planners estimate, there are nearly ten times the number of workers operating in the same space. There are now nearly 1, 50,000 travelers between Dadar and Elphinstone Road between 8:30 and 9:30 am every morning. The floating population in the nearby C. Ward is five lakhs against one lakh residents, which gives a clear picture of the crush at these stations”.

“The second factor to remember as the cause for the accident is the total negligence on the part of the railways, apart from the creaky infrastructure for passengers boarding and alighting from trains on suburban stations. When Suresh Prabhu, who hails from Mumbai, sanctioned the widening of the over bridge at Elphinstone Road in 2015, after repeated complaints from commuters, he merely passed it on with orders to follow up, which the Railway Mikados slept over in time-honored fashion”.

The Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said he would authorize “whatever is necessary” to improve safety at stations. After chairing a meeting of senior railway officials on Saturday, he said that the Railways would regard foot-over bridges not as an amenity but a necessity.

Ajit Ranade in a column for the Mumbai Mirror writes on how the local trains are the place where thousands die every year –

“These were utterly senseless and avoidable deaths. People die in stampedes in India in poorly managed pilgrim places. People are not supposed to die in a stampede while going to work in India’s financial capital”.

“They died because of shoddy and slippery infrastructure, despite repeated reminders to widen that bridge, or make it safer for commuters. Even in normal times, an elderly person descending the stairs of any suburban railway station is prone to slip and fall on the poorly kept stairs. It’s simply a miracle if more people are not dying this way”.

“Decision-making gets enmeshed and infinitely delayed. Thus, the simple proposal for widening and strengthening the FOB languished in files between various departments and approvals. Meanwhile 22 people had to die to give them a wakeup call”.

There have been calls recently as expected for better infrastructure. A more pressing issue could be better governance. Looking at priorities, on the one hand the Prime Minister inaugurated the beginning of bullet train project while just a couple of weeks later the Elphinstone disaster takes place.

More columns by Varun Sukumar