The stampede at Elphinstone Station brings up a million questions about our system and our priorities.
Mainly, it raises a fundamental question: do we as a state require an upgrade in our intra-state railway infra, especially for Mumbai, or do we pay for a fancy toy to display theatrics to the world, one which doesn't benefit our state directly?
Yes, the Railways has been traditionally called Mumbai's lifeline. Millions of people ferry on it each day. With the distance covered, time more or less kept and the volume of people transported, it was truly a wonder of the transport world. The point is, after decades of the same infrastructure, mostly crumbling, is it still a wonder?
A particular joke even said, our stations are fully automatic- stand on the platform, if you don't fall off, you'll enter the train automatically as you'll be pushed in, of course!
This isn't a wonder anymore. It is the resilience of the people who keep using the network, simply because most of them don't have a voice or the time to make their voice heard. Furthermore, the railways administration is so opaque, that any voice gets lost in the echoes of files moving from one officer to another.
To speak about the recent unfortunate stampede, it now appears that from the Shiv Sena (and probably there are other parties too), two MPs - Arvind Sawant (South Mumbai) and Rahul Shewale (South Central Mumbai) - as also MLA Ajay Choudhari and former mayor Shradha Jadhav had written to the Railway Ministry and Board on many occasions asking for widening of the very same bridge.
Each one of them, on multiple occasions (to their reminder letters or speeches in Parliament) received a letter from the then ministers.
The question arises that if 2 MPs, 1 MLA and 1 former Mayor, among many, aren't heard about a particular bridge they have spoken about since 2014 , will the voices of others even be considered?
Why is Mumbai given step-motherly treatment despite having contributed so much to the national income and while having (at many times) the same party in power at the centre and the state?
If one notices the trend of water -logging in Mumbai over the last decade, the first areas to hold up water are the railway lines. The first transportation system that crashes is the Railways. That is exactly what happened in 2014, repeated on August 29, 2017, and may occur again.
In August, when Mumbai received its heaviest rain in 12 years, the Railways stopped operating during rush hours and there was an overflow of people using road transport, leading to jams and people stranded.
Apparently a call answered by the Mumbai fire brigade rescued people out of a train later at night. They had to enter to rescue people, abandoned by the Railways when their tracks flooded.
How is this a lifeline anymore?
Year after year, the BMC tries to convince the Railways about letting the BMC lay storm water drains across the railway lines. They've spoken about their station areas being cleaner, less cluttered, more organised and coordinated. But only to disappear into endless echoes.
Another incident from August 29 shown in a video taken by a BMC staffer captures the water, logged in a particular area, only receding when they broke open concrete constructed structures that held the water flow along with tons of debris and plastic dumped unscientifically into outlets.
If truly the Railways has to upgrade itself to the new lifeline of Mumbai, which is needed, it has a fantastic ground-level staff. The system needs to bring in rejuvenation to the railway infrastructure. The system needs to get local, blend in and coordinate with local agencies.
The way it is being forced onto people, with crores of rupees being splurged on it, it can be called a "bullied train" instead of the bullet train.
No common Mumbaikar is going to go to Ahmedabad daily using only a bullet train for work, and vice versa, especially when one compares the practical rates of the ticket vis-a-vis those of the airplane that makes the journey in an hour.
What we urgently need is an upgrade in these existing facilities.
These trains, even today, are sitting targets for terrorists. After the blasts and terror attacks, we still don't know whether everyone who goes inside is armed or unarmed. But by the compulsion of our need, we use them, not questioning the authorities.
Let me leave aside the recent spate of derailments. On a more positive note, there are many things the government can do, instead of spending on something that has no benefit for Mumbai, yet forcing it on to Mumbai.
A plan for elevated Railways was touted. That will help us ease the crowds on the North- South corridor in Mumbai. I had even suggested pedestrian pathways and a bicycle track, like the green way project in New York. It was spoken about by the then Minister, then lost in the echoes of files.
Mumbai also needs trains that go clockwise and-anti clockwise around the city. Connecting the North- South ends of the existing railway structure with its parallel lines could do wonders for transportation for Mumbai.
None of the above ideas are new. They have been discussed "positively" for a while. Implementation is needed.
Another pertinent question is: do we need a separate Ministry of Railways at the State level across India to sort out daily issues?
Millions of people use it each day, Railways are very local to cities like Mumbai, and coordinating with a faceless, opaque ministry in Delhi is a hassle.
As mentioned earlier, the ground staff, and the way it manages things is a wonder, with the way the infrastructure is crumbling. The people who use it, are a blessing for the Railways as they are too busy to curse it.
Mumbai deserves respect in the form of sustainable, democratic development in return for the way it supports the country financially. We don't need development that has gone "crazy"! We need our voice to be heard, acted on the way Mumbai wants it to be.
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