Famous Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz once wrote about the plight of ordinary people who must walk, eyes lowered, the body crouched in fear due to the onslaught of dictatorship(Nisaar mai.n terii galiyo.n ke ae watan is the opening line of the original poem).
Faiz wrote in a different context but people in Mumbai now walk with more dread than before. It is not just the fear of being knocked and crushed by a car. But one can now straight fall down to death from a bridge for no fault of one’s own. One may guard onself against the insolent motorist. How does one cope with the inefficiency, corruption, arrogance of the municipal, railway authorities?
One had expected life to improve after the National Urban Transport Policy came into being in 2006. But 12 years down the line, while mobility has improved greatly for the rich travelers it has become worse for ordinary people.
Life was never so bad in Mumbai, once known for its excellent public transport system. Some activists are struggling and recently a meeting of public transport activists was held in Bangalore under the auspices of SUMNET, Sustainable Urban Mobility Network. During that meeting came the realization of how bad things are becoming with the news of the collapse of a portion of the pedestrian part of the Gokhale Bridge across the railway tracks over Andheri railway station on July 3. A woman, Asmita Katkar, 35, had just taken her son to school and was walking on the bridge when she fell and died four days later. And earlier this week another victim passed away, Manoj Mehta, a Chartered Accountant, 52. He was soon to see off his daughter for further studies in Canada.
The situation is akin to an emergency in urban transport. Several old bridges on railway tracks are now found to be in a very dangerous condition. This means any mishap will not only result in a large number of deaths but will disrupt Mumbai’s transport lifeline .
One stampede on the Elphinstone station bridge last year resuled in the death of 23 people. Any collapse of a bridge would now be catastrophic.
All the talk of smart cities and smart travel by politicians and bureaucrats always sounded hollow. But one had not realized how irresponsible our ruling circles are. They are still set on building such fancy projects as a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad and a coastal road. And the latest fad is building roads above the existing expressways along the eastern and western corridors of the city.
And for all the lapses of the managements, it is the ordinary commuters who are paying a heavy price as it is proposed to close down some bridges and pedestrian paths.
To add to this five people have died in accidents caused by potholed roads in Kalyan on the outskirts of Mumbai and many face injury and death in the metropolis. While this risk is serious, the upper class is focused much more on this menace as it affects their motor car travel while there is very inadequate attention to the lack of maintenance of the railway and pedestrian bridges.
The efficiency of the railway engineers has always been in doubt. Even ordinary civil engineering works are so badly handled. Their own administrative office premises above Churchgate train terminus became a torture chamber for the employees with the use of glass material for walls with a disastrous heat effect. Even the design of the men’s loo at the station shows poor workmanship and the seats in first class of local trains are a torture. It is not difficult to remake the seats but they don’t even think about these things. It simply does not register on them.
Barring a few socially conscious civil and structural engineers like Shirish Patel and Sudhir Badami there are few people from the engineering community who intervene in discussions on what is wrong with Mumbai.They write in the media and participate in discussions.
By and large the huge community of civil engineers in Mumbai is utterly reticent if not indifferent. Despite such a major civil engineering problem of railway bridges Mumbai is currently facing, one finds any response from the numerous engineers in the city on the social media.
It took a retired chief engineer of the Western railway Shashikant Limaye to throw some light on the reasons for the collapse of a part of the Andheri bridge. He said on a television network that the pedestrian part was overloaded with additional cables and slabs.
In contrast, the medical profession is much more active. It at least shows some self criticism amidst the revolting commercialization of the health sector.
There is almost a 40 years tradition of questioning the professional ills starting with a book by Dr Arun Limaye in the 70s and then by Dr Ravi Bapat and many others. Currently the book Healers or Predators edited by Dr Sanjay Nagral and others is making waves and a discussion on the book is scheduled to be held at the K.E.M. Hospital in Mumbai on August 4. Such introspection, self criticism, activism is totally lacking in the engineering profession in Mumbai.
There is much more awareness in Delhi IIT with the presence of Dinesh Mohan and others. At the Sumnet conference it was refreshing to discover Nishant Singh, a young IIT engineer with social consciousness. While most IITans aspire to go abroad and get cushy management jobs in India, he has chosen to work among cycle rickshaw pullers in Bihar and drafting a legislation to improve their working conditions.
Also significant is his and Rajendra Ravi’s analysis of the Delhi Metro entitled Riding on Debt and published by CFA, centre for financial accountability.
Their paper says the Delhi metro project has denied the right of the urban poor to the city and promoted the hegemony of real estate. The policy reinforces the fears of the restructuring of the city favouring the interests of the wealthy against the poor.
It says metro projects in general are highly expensive and irrelevant, they ignore low cost alternatives and impose a high financial burden on state governments.
However, the delusion continues to be exploited by politicians for electoral gains. This obsession with the Metro projects will harm civic bodies and state governments.
[Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book questioning the automobile-dominated pattern of development. The above article is first published by CounterCurrents.org.]
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