Mumbai which is known for confronting harsh rains recently witnessed loss of lives in an unprecedented incident in its history. A very large number of people who had gathered at the foot over-bridge linking Parel and Elphinstone Road suburban stations crushed each other, resulting in 23 lives lost and over 30 injured. No one had expected Mumbai to behave that way. What has happened to the city which has been fighting to save each other in epidemics and disasters ever since it came to existence?
Heavy rains prompted people to take shelter on the foot over-bridge, the link between Central Railwaysâ suburban station of Parel and Western Railwaysâ Elphinstone Road. The narrow over-bridge hardly had the capacity but people accommodated each other even as the situation got so rough that one could hardy move oneâs body â almost packed like potatoes in a bag. Then, there was a commotion and people ran over each other. The incident happened at 10.30 A.M and resulted in a double-digit number of deaths and injuries within just few minutes.
An interesting drama unfolded after the incident. The Railways held none of its officials responsible for the incident and attributed it to an abstract reason â a rumour, and its minister declared measures that would prevent such incidents. If the railway administration was not at fault, why were these measures taken to reform it?
âSafety is the biggest concern. The railways will do everything possible in order to maintain safety. Investment and technology will be used to increase safety of commuters. Railway officials will inspect and submit a detailed report in seven days,â declared Railway Minister Piyush Goyal. He ordered installation of escalators at stations with excess commuters and CCTVs in local trains. Not missing the opportunity to blame the previous government, he said, âIt is not an excuse but problems in Indian Railways are not one or two years old. They were given to us in 2014 as inheritance.â
Goyal also lost no time to take a politically guided decision of sending 200 officers of the ministry to the field. He also decided to post efficient officers at 75 important stations. The decision is obviously meant to dismantle the supremacy of the Railway Board which has enjoyed autonomy for decades. The process was initiated at the behest of NITI Aayog, the think tank that has replaced the Planning Commission. Another aspect is also important to note: This is the alleged saffronization of bureaucracy which has been prevented in Indian Railways only by the presence of strong socialist trade unions.
That the debate around the stampede is lopsided can be understood when we see it focusing on only one aspect of the tragedy â that the foot over-bridge was too narrow to accommodate a big crowd. No one can deny that the over-bridge is narrow and old. However, its narrowness and age is not of much significance in this case because the bridge sustained the crowd without getting damaged. The politicians started crying hoarse as to how the local Shiv Sena MP wrote many letters to get a broad over-bridge, but was not heard.
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) which has been trying all these years after it came into existence to replace Shiv Sena as a parochial regional outfit, also jumped into the fray to demand the ouster of illegal vendors at the
entrances to suburban stations and on the stairs. The demand is obviously meant to target non-Maharashrians who earn their living by selling small items of daily-use. A majority of them are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
With the politics superseding other considerations, the government forgot or ignored to punish the negligent officials and policemen present at the station. The story that the misconstrued assertion of a flower-seller that âphool gir gayaâ (the flower has fallen down) caused the stampede took prominence. The story says that âphoolâ was misinterpreted as âpulâ by the crowd. The story gave the government and the bureaucracy the much needed alibi to drop the idea of not punishing erring officials. An initial investigation report defended the Government Railway Police and the Railway Protection Force in most extraordinary way and went to the extent of saying that constables were unable to reach the point of incident due to the huge crowd. The suggestion obviously was that they should have a smooth passage to reach a troubled spot!
There have been stampedes at stations on previous occasions too and the immediate response of the ministry has been to take action against the officials. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report of 2013 stampede at Allahabad junction during Kumbh Mela pointed to the lack of a Railway Disaster Management Plan for such situations. The ministry talked about such a plan, but nothing concrete came out.
The apathy towards common people has been evident in new policies of railways. There has been no focus on safety at local trains. At least 8 to 9 people die daily in local trains. These accidents occur while people travel by standing at the door side or they try to cross railway tracks. These accidents hardly find their way into daily newspapers or on television channels. No minister talks of these deaths in his or her budget speech as if some of commuters are bound to die. The only person who took care of these deaths and the deaths of railway employees at tracks while doing odd safety and other jobs was a non-railway man â nuclear scientist Anil Kokodkar. He took the pain of discussing every single death in railways and gave a comprehensive plan on safety in his report. He was heading a High LevelÂ Committee on Safety in Railways was appointed by the Manmohan Singh government. It had suggested spending one lakh crore in five years. He had also suggested that a safety fund could be created by levying passengers. The idea, however, was not new and it had been successfully implemented by Nitish Kumar during his tenure as railway minister. Nothing was done after him and Suresh Prabhu, the minister who recently left the ministry, worked overtime only to ignore safety.
But the theme goes beyond the narrative which surrounds a narrow and fragile over-bridge. The location of the disaster is not an ordinary one. Lower Parel, Parel and Lalbaug was once the capital of working class movement. Its chaul culture symbolized collectivity, comradery and sacrifice. The theme finds expression in the films of Raj Kapoor and others, through the pen of Khwaza Ahmed Abbas and the likes. The area has now become one of the most prized places of the city with sky-scrappers accommodating offices of important companies. Mills have long vanished to give rise to elite structures.