The implications of the stampede which killed 23 people and injured 39 at Elphinstone road railway station in Mumbai on September 29, are larger than we have seen so far.
I visited the station and surrounding area three days in the last one week and noticed that the treatment of commuters is far more inhuman than we thought.
Two narrow lanes connect the station with the main artery Senapati Bapat Marg, formerly Tulsi Pipe road, and both are hazardous with motor cycles constantly threatening the commuters.
One of the lanes is particularly insidious, it is a dark alley actually with high grey walls , one is sandwiched between India Bulls on one side and another tower called Naman Mid-Town.
Naman is unique in that it has a private flyover for its cars running from Bapat Marg and its own pedestrian bridge for its other employees. I also noticed that this pedestrian bridge is wider than the railway bridge though it is used by far fewer people. This really underlines the extreme callousness of the government machinery. Besides, the railway bridge remains unswept and one could not miss the marigold flowers lying around because of their striking saffron colour.
Besides, what kind of a mindset and planning are is at work ? Both these towers have come in place of large plots with a lot of open space, one of the state-owned Elphinstone mill and another of slum housing. And they could not yield a respectable decent space for ordinary people than the hideous lane . The marginalization of common people could not have been more blatant.
The municipal authorities are even more callous. The road outside the station, parallel to the railway tracks, is full of garbage. There is squalor all round. There are large plots of fenced vacant land with dirt strewn all around. When it rains this area becomes more filthy and one can imagine why some of the commuters sought to remain on the bridge on that fateful morning than step into the dirt.
The steps to Parel station platform from the bridge linking Elphinsone are more narrow and this section remains a bigger potential deathtrap and needs more urgent attention. Fortunately, the area outside Parel station is fairly clean and without garbage, clutter. This area provides access a big complex of state-run hospitals and has much fewer corporate locations.
On the Elphinstone sation side, huge car parks spread over three storeys in the two towers are a dominant presence, making a mockery of the hapless commuters struggling to walk in the dirt on the uneven surface.
Cars continuously stream into India Bulls tower which makes walking on the footpath extremely difficult and hazardous. A couple of security men in dark safari uniforms guide the cars.Why should they spare a thought for pedestrians when the government’s own traffic police work for cars, not ordinary walkers.
At the junction near Deepak Cinema , now a heritage site, I complained to the traffic constable that motorists drove menacingly even when the pedestrians had the green signal. He said his own life was constantly in danger, anything can happen to him if the brakes of vehicles fail.
It is also remarkable that security men are hired at the tower to look after cars but all these years one never saw a railway constable trying to guide thousands of harried commuters on crowded railway bridges. It is only now after the government-caused disaster that there is a heavy presence of policemen at the station. But as usual they are in the command mode, not to serve the people. The heavy arms some of them carry and the aloof way they stand makes it clear.
Lopsided development of the gentrified, former textile mill dominated area is seen mainly in terms of motorized traffic which gets utterly immobolised in the evening. But you get a far more grim and nauseating picture if you walk as I did on Bapat Marg from Dadar railway station to Elphinstone road station and beyond and then from N.M. Joshi Marg to Lower Parel station. This station too caters to a large number of employees from corporate offices in the area. Curiously, these two stations, unlike other stations, have clean toilets with wash basins with running water and a mirror thanks to a Rotary club in India and the U.K. The Indian State is clearly not embarrassed that it has to depend on the Rotary for basic amenities.
Bapat, by the way was a renowned Gandhian satyagrahi known for cleaning the streets, and N.M. Joshi, a pioneer labour leader.
Between Dadar and Elphinstone road stations are two sites in memory of leading lights of the BJP and the Shiv Sena, a sprawling garden named after Pramod Mahajan, the slain former minister, and a flower market named after Meenatai Thackeray, wife of Bal Thackeray. She is very respectfully called Maasaheb, the mother, on the board.
Despite this and the Swach Bharat mission, the area around the two sites is perhaps the filthiest public road in Mumbai. Huge cesspools, trucks and buses, treble parked on the busy road and stink make walking utterly unbearable.
It is necessary to underline this humiliation of the pedestrian and commuter since an influential paper like the Times of India has chosen in its comment columns to mock the victims, hold them responsible for the stampede when all evidence piled for years on points to the lapses of the government machinery. The victim is seen as the perpetrator in a classic case of victim blaming , a phenomenon highlighted by psychologist William Ryan in 1971 . It was in response to attempts to portray the blacks in America as being responsible for their lot, not seem victims of outrageous racism.
Scapegoats are already being found in poor hawkers being held responsible for crowding the railway areas. The railways have already launched a drive against them and they were the singular target of attack in the morcha last Thursday led by the divisive political figure of Raj Thackeray of MNS, Maharashtra Navanirman Sena.
The staggering failure of the railways in this case is being covered up. Those blaming the hawkers should look at the poor women vegetable vendors sitting outside Dadar west railway station. They sell little `vatas, small portions of cucumbers or beetroot and carrots laid out on the floor in front of them. An evening’s earnings may not be more than a hundred rupees or so, a below poverty income. And yet they are even in normal times constantly in fear of civic raids.
The Mumbai police have already given the administration a clean chit saying no one is responsible for the stampede. Is all this so simple ? Analysing stampedes, understanding the causes is a complicated business, though in this particular stampede in Mumbai every sensible person knows that the government is responsible. The government and our activists need to understand the serious implications. They should learn from the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy in England in 1989 in which 96 fans were killed and 766 injured during the F.A. cup semi final. Sustained inquiries have severely indicted the police and charged them virtually with causing the murder of the victims with their inept handling of the situation. There was the same victim blaming in this case and the police told outrageous lies accusing the fans of indulging in hooliganism and drinking. All this was proved to be false in the inquiry. Currently, some very senior officers including one knighted by the establishment are being prosecuted. The relatives of the victims have tenaciously fought for years to get justice.
The surge of commuters that builds up at several stations is not much less than the number of football fans in a match. Yet, unless there is a crush as happened at Elphinstone station, pedestrians always maintain mutual cooperation and collisions between pedestrians are rare on this account. This is a well studied phenomenon. William Whyte, who walked in New York for 16 years to study pedestrian behavior and open spaces, is a pioneer in this field. He did this wielding cameras and notebooks. He has paid high tributes to pedestrians. This is his birth centenary year exactly, he was born in October, 1917. He was no leftist, by the way. He was the editor of Fortune and wrote an acclaimed book on corporate culture called Organisation Man. But he was deeply human and he knew both the worlds of corporate and the common people. That is why his insights are extremely important.
So condemning ordinary people is outrageous. You first deny them basic amenities and then when a mishap takes place you mock them. And stampedes are not peculiar to India. They occur frequently in the West despite much better facilities. The stampede is a wake up call that should prompt us to examine our entire urban fabric and the deep injustice and inequity built into it.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change