Collapse of pedestrian bridge in Mumbai exposes sham of world class city

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Infrastructure is the catchword of our politicians and bureaucrats. But they are obsessed with creating infrastructure for the upper class, not for common people. The pedestrian bridge collapse in Mumbai last Thursday killing six people and injuring several others underscores the extremely anti-people nature of the Indian State.

But it is not likely to learn any lessons unless massive public pressure is brought on on it. It did not learn any lesson even when over 700 people were killed during the floods of 26 July, 2005 in Mumbai.It completely exposed the talk of converting Mumbai to Shanghai then. But it is less likely to feel guilty now with the death of six people.

Some people are surprised if one says the Indian state commits violence against common people. But now even mainstream media has in the clearest terms dubbed the civic body as the killer in the pedestrian deaths through its extreme negligence.

The main problem is the administration so passionately works for the rich in terms of infrastructure, they are hell bent on the hideously expensive and needless

Projects like the bullet train and building the coastal road in Mumbai when it cannot look after the interests of the most vulnerable sections like pedestrians.

The deep insensitivity of this class was again apparent when I heard Mr Jagan Shah, chief of the National institute of urban affairs during a discussion on a television channel on the craze for the again expensive metro railway projects.

He said these were needed for meeting the aspirations of the people. Similar arguments are made to justify subsidising air and car travel. O.K. But then the question these people should be asking themselves is are we meeting the ordinary aspirations of common people for such basic, simple needs as walking and commuting by bus and train ? There is a criminal failure on this front. It is so obvious yet this class remains extremely obdurate in its insistence of following the wrong priorities.

The municipal corporation in Mumbai is taking advantage of the tolerance of the citizens, observed the chief justice of the Bombay High court Naresh Patil on March 14. The next day the civic body provided a most gruesome demonstration of this inefficiency and callousness when the pedestrian bridge providing a link between the civic headquarters and Chhhatrapati Shivaji rail terminus in the heart of Mumbai collapsed killing six people and injuring several others.

The high court had been repeatedly warning the civic body against its shoddy work of road construction. The judiciary is one institution for which politicians and bureaucrats have some respect and there is always the fear of being sentenced. That the civic body has shown such disregard even for the high court shows the deep rot that has set in in the organisation, once the pride of civic governance in the nation.

Interestingly, Mr Ajoy Mehta, municipal commissioner enjoying the rare privilege of an extension after three years in the plum post, had not faced the media or visited the scene of the mishap, literally next door , several hours after it occurred.

The bridge collapse is like the last straw for ordinary Mumbaikars already groaning under bad conditions for walking and commuting.

Mumbai’s lifeline the BEST bus service, once the pride of the nation, has been systematically subverted by the government and the civic body by starving it of funds. By encouraging the influx of motor cars causing unberable traffic jams, the authorities are further crippling the bus service as buses make fewer trips and incur further losses. The vicious circle continues. Mr Mehta constantly insists that BEST must improve its efficiency to get more funds. But it can become efficient only if the government and the civic body allow it to function better. Besides, if the yardstick of efficiency is to be used all civic services will have to be starved of funds as inefficiency is evident all over.

There is little resistance to this grave maladministration from citizens. There is some resistance being offered by a few organisations like an independent voluntary forum of activists called Aamchi Mumbai, Aamchi BEST which is holding protest meetings and bringing out reports and leaflets in a bid to revive the BEST and public transport.. On March 1 it held a public hearing on the BEST crisis before a panel headed by former Mumbai high court judge and human rights champion H. Suresh. It had an overwhelming response from people from all walks of life including slum dwellers and academics. The forum which includes economists, engineers and others has thrown up leadership from different strata of society. Earlier this month a former bus conductor Jagnarayan Gupta made a forceful presentation on behalf of the forum before a very literate, enlightened gathering of Mumbai Collective, a forum for promotion of secularism and inclusiveness at Y.B. Chavan auditorium.

Mumbai is facing a public transport emergency. The city’s Municipal Commissioner never tires of talking of the deficits of BEST, the city’s public bus service. But the real emergency being faced is the atrocious conditions for travel for the majority of Mumbai’s citizens. Since our leaders and bureaucrats keep talking of developed capitalist countries, particularly the US, as their model, it is worth taking a look at some facts regarding that country’s public transport. There are both positive and negative lessons to be learnt.

In 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) due to ongoing reliability and crowding problems with mass transit in New York City, especially the subway railway system.
Among developed countries, the US’s public transport system is relatively poor, due to the strength of the automobile lobby in the US, and the associated automobile-oriented culture. Nevertheless, the authorities in New York at least had the sense to realise that there was a serious crisis, and they initiated some corrective action. Have the Mumbai authorities ever shown such awareness ?

Mumbai: authorities’ conspiracy of silence regarding BEST

In Mumbai, the policy of continued neglect of BEST bus service has led to a state of emergency as far as common people are concerned, they are being left stranded, humiliated. But the government remains unmoved. Adamant is the word used by Mr V. Ranganathan, former municipal commissioner and former chief secretary of the Mahaashtra government, when I met him recently at a seminar organised by the Urban Design Research Institute.
Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, practicing architect, urban designer, and educator, was troubled to hear of the neglect of BEST. Everyone I spoke to at the seminar held at Rachana Sansad architecture institute was very upset with the government’s utter neglect of BEST. In fact, there is total silence from the government, though the issue is so important for the city. There seems to be almost a conspiracy of silence.

On January 25, the Marathi daily Loksatta brought out a special supplement on urban transport in Mumbai. Several senior government officials, including Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta and MMRDA commissioner R.A. Rajeev, contributed articles on public transport, but these are all about the Metro, the coastal road, flyovers, and so on. There is not even a reference to bus transport.

The crisis in public transport in the U.S.,one of the richest and powerful countries in the shows what happens when public transport is neglected for years on. As a poor country, we in India should have given priority to public transport from the beginning. But we did the reverse and now we are paying the price. The present situation is worse than an emergency for common people while the rich are having a joy ride in their luxurious cars, in a market where new luxury models are being introduced every now and then.

Mr Ajoy Mehta, who is so vocal about privatization of bus services, needs to note that New York city actually had to take over private bus companies to improve efficiency, as their performance was not satisfactory.

But the campaign against public transport is not restricted to economic and planning measures. It extends to the sphere of publicity and images. Private cars are depicted as dazzling, desirable, a symbol of status. Public transport is depicted as dirty, unfashionable, shameful. This propaganda has now taken even more brazen forms, both in promoting cars and in denigrating buses.

Playground of the rich

The car lobby, in India, represented by the Western India Automobile Association, celebrated its centenary earlier this month with a brazen display of high-powered new car models and motor cycles, making a deafening noise, along with vintage cars at a motor car show at Bandra-Kurla complex, where no ordinary mortal could enter. The entry fee for this display was Rs 300.

Thus while the rich enjoy increased mobility with new models of fast and fancy cars, ordinary people are humiliated and are given little access to public transport. In the same Bandra-Kurla complex, there should be excellent public transport connectivity, since it is a major business and financial centre. But this area has very poor connectivity by public transport, despite being located between the suburban railway stations of Kurla on the Central Railway and Bandra on Western, both of which are focal points for commuters.

The misery of commuters in this area stands in sharp contrast to the ultra-mobility enjoyed by the rich, which was on display at the WIAA show. No one symbolises the culture of hedonism and speed better than Gautam Singhania, who in flamboyant style went around his collection of racing cars at the venue wearing his hat and red T shirt.. He is also known for his unsavoury dispute with his father, Vijaypat, who staged his own display of hedonism some years ago with his solo balloon flights.

And Raymond, the corporate group the car loving Singhania heads, was recently he beneficiary of renewal of the lease of some four acres of prime land by the side of the Powai lake . This land is reserved for a public garden but is now a playground for the rich. The recent renewal of the land by the BMC further demonstrates that the administration is for the rich and the motorists not common people, commuters.

The same ultra-mobile motoring class aided by those in authority have made the poor so immobile. The irony is that car manufacturers project the idea that they are in the business of mobility, as they did at their recent conference at the golf course in Pune. Sure, they have created great mobility for the rich (that too requires constant replenishment in the form of ever more expensive road/bridge/flyover/coastal road projects). But in the process they have reduced the mobility for ordinary people, whose buses now move much slower, and whose walking is now more hazardous as cars impede movement everywhere. This is a fact the car makers will not acknowledge, but the facts are evident and undeniable.

At conferences it is fashionable to talk of ‘last mile connectivity’, but this talk is dishonest. Take the same Bandra-Kurla complex. Most of the buses numbered 310 from Kurla and BKC to Bandra station (East) are terminated half a km away from Bandra station, at the Bandra court near the highway. Commuters then have to walk in the most inhospitable environment. This mocks commuters and it shows the extreme callousness of the authorities in managing public transport.

Ironically, as I saw very clearly recently, the much more expensive electric, air conditioned buses for BKC run utterly empty. These buses are taken right up to the station, while ordinary commuters are forced to get down earlier and walk through the extremely crowded, dirty and obstacle-filled road. No point in blaming Behrampada and other localities. The authorities can definitely improve things, given the will to do so. Why on earth can they not take a part of the railway land to widen the road? But the whole idea is to make money out of public land.

Besides, it is really a shame that bus commuters waiting at bus stops outside Bandra east station are forced to stand next to the dirty and stench-filled nalla. Such sights at bus stops further drive away commuters from public transport, and they would rather take a share-auto.

If they cleaned up the area, every one would benefit. It is amazing that this is not done even in the vicinity of the Shiv Sena chief’s residence and the MMRDA office. But clearly neither the Shiv Sena chief nor the head of the MMRDA travels by bus.

Deliberate humiliation
Now there is a move to even further humiliate the bus service and its users, and associate buses in people’s mind with filth. A Shiv Sena corporator has proposed to the civic body that old BEST buses be used as mobile toilets, ostensibly for use of commuters caught in traffic jams.

This supposedly innocent proposal is not so innocent, but is a calculated insult. The idea is to downgrade, ridicule public transport. (Perhaps it is because the BEST workers rejected the Shiv Sena’s leadership during the recent strike?) Recall that the municipal corporation has an appalling record regarding its basic duty to provide public urinals and latrines to citizens all over the metropolis. And suddenly they trot out the excuse of commuters caught in traffic jams needing mobile toilets. The jams are actually caused by the government’s own policy of promoting cars, which lord over roads and grab most of the space.

So the move should be seen as a deliberate affront to people. This became even more obvious when one heard a speakers at a symposium on sanitation organized by the Urban Design Research Institute at Rachana Sansad architecture college in Mumbai on February 14. One heard appalling stories about civic insanitation, and these came not from activists whom the government is quick to condemn as negative in outlook. These came from highly placed people working in organisations like Tata Trusts and Aga Khan Trust. So, the municipal corporation is extremely inefficient in sanitation, and particularly waste disposal, as seen from repeated strictures passed against it by the courts.
The anti-BEST move would further lower the image of the once-reputed public service organization. This in sharp contrast to the constant image building of cars done by the automobile lobby, extolling cars for their design, for giving freedom and status. The aesthetic of cars is constantly extolled, as captured by the title of a book by Stephen Bayley, a prominent art critic and a defender of colonialism, “Cars – freedom, style, sex, power, motion, colour, everything.”

So the BMC wants to spend over Rs 12,000 crore on the coastal road and to add that make it toll free for motorists and further reward them with free parking by building car parks at a huge cost in south Mumbai causing further disruption during construction and robbing people of public space. The ignorance and inefficiency of a section of the bureaucratic and political class is appalling. In all developed countries the drive now is to reduce facilities for car parking as it has been realised that the monster of the car has to be checked. They have understood the seriousness while our officials are pandering to the car lobby.

The collapsed pedestrian bridge is a few feet away from the historic Times of India building where I worked for 36 long years from 1968.. One reason I held on for so many years there was it was so reachable by public transport. One could simply cross the road from CST station to Times of India. Often I used to accompany the resident editor Darryl D’Monte, an activist for public transport. Though he is from a big land owning family in Bandra, he insisted on taking the harbour branch train from Bandra to CST to reach Times of India. There was no bridge in those days nor the hot and stuffy underpass which came up some years after the bridge. The bridge had been opposed by activists in those days for being anti-hertiage and ugly and Busybee, the popular humourist, Behram Contractor, had opposed the underpass for being unfriendly to pedestrians like the bridge.

Public memory is short. A pedestrian bridge had come up outside Churchgate station in the seventies and was demolished a few years later following opposition since it was so anti pedestrian.

Dr S.K. Modak, transport economist and former principal of Sydenham and Elphinsone colleges, had made out a strong case against the bridge making calculations of extra energy and time spent by pedestrians who were being penalised for the benefit of a few cars and motorists.

There is clearly a serious need for popular resistance by all sections. And as economics writer Prof Sanjeev Chandorkar of Tata Institute of social sciences pointed out professionals have also failed us as in the case of those who carried out the structural audit of the now collapsed bridge and declared that it only needed minor repairs and was not unsafe.

And look at a new breed of so-called journalists. A couple of radio jockeys, looking very self important, blamed pedestrians for road deaths at a recent media interaction with officials of the motor vehicles department.

So, there is no alternative to a mass popular resistance since the political and bureaucratic class is failing us badly. As Rahul Mehrotra, architect pointed out some time ago we lost the mill lands because the civil society did not wake up in time. It is time for us to wake at least now so that further damage can be halted.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book seeking a more democratic urban environment and transport


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