Policemen inspect the site of a deadly stampede at Parel and Elphinstone Road stations in Mumbai on Friday. Photo: Reuters

The tragic stampede in Mumbai on Friday morning could have been prevented. The horrifying incident, in which 22 people died and 39 others were injured, was caused by overcrowding on the foot-over-bridge (FOB) connecting the Parel Railway Station on the Central Railway (CR) and the Elphinstone Road Station on the Western Railway (WR). An accidental death report under sec 174 of the Criminal Procedure Code has been registered at Dadar Police Station.

Even a child commuting during peak hours on this particular FOB could have predicted that such a narrow bridge is a surefire recipe for disaster, so it is unbelievable that not a single railway official saw it coming. Or perhaps they did foresee it and did nothing to prevent it, choosing instead to remain mute spectators waiting for a tragedy to happen.

Hence, today’s stampede should not be treated as an accident but as an act of culpable homicide. The railway administration has shown a callous disregard for public safety and criminal charges should be registered against all those who could have acted to prevent this tragedy.

Judging from similar cases in the past, those responsible may not be held accountable by the investigations, judicial inquiries and commissions that will follow this tragedy.

In the past 10 years, the Central-Mumbai area of Parel, Elphinstone, Lower Parel and other parts of the financial capital have undergone tremendous changes. Thousands of corporate offices house a rapidly growing army of office workers who use Dadar, Parel, Currey Road (On the CR) and Dadar, Elphinstone, Lower Parel (On the WR) stations to commute to and from work each day.

If one is traveling by car, then on any normal day, it takes at least an hour to travel from Parel (East) to Parel (West) or Elphinstone Road due to the sheer number of cars on the road during those hours. Similarly, during peak hours one gets off the train at Parel or Elphinstone Road stations, and then it takes at least 20 minutes to simply exit the station and get to the road. And those 20 minutes are a walk through hell, with hundreds of people trying to navigate the narrow FOBs as they rush to work.

Traveling on overcrowded trains was already a nightmare for Mumbaikars, but now even exiting or entering a station has become life-threatening thanks to the callous nature of the railway bureaucracy.

The fact is, both Mumbai locals and suburban commuters have long been ignored by the railway authorities. A few years back, there was a trend among Union railway ministers: whenever a minister assumed office, he or she would announce a slew of train services to their own constituencies in order to please their voters.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014 and appointed Suresh Prabhu as railway minister, Mumbaikars hoped that things would change for the better because he was not a career politician. And on top of that, Prabhu was a Mumbaikar, and it was expected that he would sympathize with the commuting woes of Mumbaikars and try to alleviate their problems. But in his nearly three years as railway minister, Prabhu did little to improve things.

Now, Piyush Goyal has taken over as railway minister, and he is a Mumbaikar as well, so there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that he will try to do something.

Goyal made a scheduled visit to Mumbai on Friday for various events and meetings. However, when he landed in Mumbai and was greeted with the news of the tragedy, he immediately canceled all his engagements and rushed to see the victims at KEM hospital.

Speaking to the media, Goyal said, “Wherever there is a need for foot over bridge to be widened we will do it immediately as a high priority. I have also issued directions for safety and capacity audits of foot over bridges in Mumbai where there is congestion.

He added that ex-gratia payments of Rs5 lakh would be given by the state and Rs5 lakh by the railways to the families of the deceased. The government will also cover medical expenses.

Earlier in the day, after landing in Mumbai, Goyal announced that he had ordered a high-level inquiry to headed by the chief safety officer.

But what is really needed is a high-level, time-bound investigation by an independent judicial authority monitored directly by the High Court or Supreme Court to find out why this tragedy was allowed to occur in the first place. Who is responsible for not having the FOBs in place at the right time? Why weren’t timely sanctions given for the repair, upkeep and widening of the existing FOBs?

What we need is for those responsible to be publicly identified and held accountable. Merely blaming the system is not going to deliver justice to the victims of this terrible tragedy or prevent future disasters.

What exactly happened today?

•  At around 9.30 am, it started raining in Mumbai, and it came down especially hard in central areas. Commuters who alighted at Parel and Elphinstone stations stopped on the FOB and stairs and waited for the rain to subside before exiting the premises.

•   In a span of 15 minutes at least 10 trains (5 each on CR and WR) stopped at Parel and Elphinstone Road stations respectively and close to a thousand people must have alighted.

•  All these people were stuck on the stairs of the FOB and the FOB connecting Parel and Elphinstone Road stations with an a exit on the west side of Elphinstone Road Station.

•   Heavy rains made the tiles on the FOB stairs slippery and people were finding it difficult to stand without losing their balance.

•   With more and more people using the already crowded FOB and those in the front not exiting due to the heavy rain, it became extremely congested.

•  In all the chaos, someone slipped and fell on the stairs, leading to those behind falling as well and piling onto that person.

•  Seeing this, people thought the FOB was collapsing and people panicked, leading to the stampede.

Bureaucratic tug-of-war between CR and WR:

Mumbai locals and commuters have long been the victims of a tug-of-war between the bureaucrats of CR and WR. The Central Line (CSTM to Karjat and Kasara) and Harbour Line (CSTM to Belapur) come under the jurisdiction of the Central Railway, which is headed by the general manager (GM), CR, while, the Western Line (Churchgate to Virar) comes under the jurisdiction of Western Railway, which is headed by the GM-WR.

These two bodies are perennially in a war of one-upmanship over who is the better service provider. This one-upmanship is especially problematic at  Parel and Elphinstone Road stations because they are situated in the same place and have to share the same FOB.

The extent of the problem is highlighted by the fact that neither CR nor WR has full control over the FOB. A notional line divides the FOB into the CR-side and WR-side, and each railway only takes care of its own side of the FOB as if it is the Wagah-border. So when CR is painting all the FOBs on the Central Line, it paints only its own half. WR does the same.

One of the reasons that is being cited as to why today’s tragedy occurred is that  the CR and WR were not able to agree on where the FOB should be built and who sould pay for it

A city like Mumbai should ideally have its own independent railway body, rather than these two companies fighting like siblings.

Another disaster waiting to happen

Another disaster waiting to happen is the road-0ver-bridge (ROB) connecting Parel (East) with Elphinstone (West). This ROB is more than a hundred years old. It is an all-stone structure that was built by the British at a time when the entire population of Mumbai was close to 6 lakh and vehicular traffic was negligible.

The vehicular traffic in the past few years has increased substantially and the bridge does not have the capacity to handle it. According to rough estimates, more than 10,000 vehicles use the single-lane bridge on a daily basis.

Even though there is a proposal in the works to widen and strengthen the bridge, it is stuck in the bureaucratic quagmire of CR, WR, BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and Mumbai Police. These departments are in a tangle with each other on various issues.

If this bridge is not repaired soon, another tragedy as bad as today’s or even worse could happen.

Unanswered Questions?:

•  Why haven’t enough FOBs been built at these stations where thousands of commuters alight and board local trains during morning and evening peak hours?

•   If FOBs were needed, why weren’t they sanctioned in time? Why did they have to be delayed by tender proceedings and bureaucratic red tape?

•  If building new FOBs was taking time, why were efforts not taken to increase the breadth of the current ones?

•  Why were railway officials not present during peak hours for crowd management?

·•  Why were the tiles on the stairs slippery? Why were slippery tiles installed in the first place? Why weren’t they replaced after the problem was identified?

•  When will the bureaucratic tug-of-war between the CR and WR stop? Why can’t they work together for the safety of commuters?

•  Why do political stunts like the renaming of stations happen without the usual administrative delays? The renaming of Elphinstone Road station name to “Prabhdevi” occurred without delay.

Statistics:

•  From January 1  to June 30, 1,590 people were killed in various local train accidents in Mumbai.

•  It means that on average, 7 people are killed daily by local trains in Mumbai.

• 1n 2016, 3,202 commuters were killed by local trains in Mumbai.

•  Overcrowding is considered to be the main reason for these deaths.

•  In 2008, a record 17 people died each day while commuting on trains in Mumbai.

•  Between 2002 and 2012, 36,152 people were killed and 36,688 were injured by Mumbai local trains.

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