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Elphinstone Stampede: Accident or Criminal Civic Negligence?

With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?

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India
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In a stampede that was over before anyone on the outside realised what was happening, 22 people died on the bridge of Elphinstone Road station in Mumbai on Friday.

Several others were injured in the crush. During rush hour, when hundreds of people were braving Mumbai in its most concentrated form, one of them reportedly panicked, thinking their worst daily fear was coming true – that the three-person-wide, decades old bridge was finally giving way. The panic spread.

The bridge wasn’t collapsing, but it could at any point, given its rickety condition during the peak hour crowds – a fact that anyone who uses the station daily would know. But what if those in charge of creating sound urban policies and safe civic infrastructure knew too?

If there was enough on paper to show that the Railways knew the exact condition of the bridge between Parel and Elphinstone Road station and had been warned several times before of an impending stampede, would yesterday’s unfortunate event then be criminal civic negligence?

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Reports, Plans and Audits

Did the authorities know that the stations and railway bridges are as problematic and dangerous as the trains themselves during rush hour? Sure. In 2015, they even shortlisted 38 stations within Mumbai’s local network to be remodelled under a Public-Private-Partnership. A special team was to be set up to give technical advice on increasing platform width, installing escalators, new overbridges – but Parel and Elphinstone didn’t make the cut.

With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?
A local train drives past a pedestrian bridge where a stampede occurred on Friday.
(Photo: AP)

Next year, in 2016, an audit report titled ‘Engendering Mumbai's Suburban Railway System’ by Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Centre for Urban Policy and Governance in collab with Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation (MRVC) and the World Bank (no less) was released. It looks at every aspect of Mumbai’s local train system – from toilets to sexual harassment cases to train schedules – including a separate section dedicated to 'Station, Station Areas and amenities'. While categorising the stations problem-wise, the report listed Kurla, Kalyan, Lower Parel, Elphinstone, Dadar, and Virar under “Issues with Foot Over Bridge”.

With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?
With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?

The Parel Terminus Project

If knowledge of the issue in detail isn’t incriminating enough, direct action initiated by the Railways in cognisance should do it.

Almost five years ago, the Ministry of Railways set to work creating a Parel Terminus Project (to add two more railway lines, and hence more platforms, escalators) worth Rs 51 crore under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project Phase II (MUTP). It hit a bureaucratic slump in February 2014 and the money was returned to the central government until further notice.

With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?

Two years later, the Railways received a green flag (and the funding back) to flag off an entirely new station at Parel to ease the congestion. Suresh Prabhu laid the foundation stone for it. The Railways announced their intention to complete the station by 2019.

‘Work is still ongoing’ at the pace it usually is in India. While answering questions in the Lok Sabha in this year, the Railways elaborated on the different kinds of models it is using/considering to undertake station redevelopment all over India. Specifically, the Rail Land Development Authority was “examining the possibility” of partnering with the MRVC (which commissioned a report pinpointing Elphinstone and Parel) for redeveloping 18 stations Mumbai.

With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?
In February 2016, former Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu sanctioned a separate project for construction a new FOB and extending the platforms at Elphinstone Road.
(Photo: Pallavi Prasad)
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The People Called It

With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?

The Ministry of Railways has an active presence on Twitter. In fact, they regularly encourage people to tweet their problems and complaints with pictures and details to officials, ranking even upto the General Managers and the Minister of Railways himself!

The people obliged. Take good samaritan and daily commuter Devang Dave for instance. Two years ago, in July 2015, he spent one morning tweeting out a polite Twitter thread to then Minister of Railways, Suresh Prabhu.

With all the information the Railway Ministry had, and the warnings from Mumbaikars, can this be just an accident?
Back in 2015, Twitter user Devang Dave documented and reported the trouble with the exact bridge where the stampede occurred.
(Graphic: The Quint

In January 2016, he tried to reach out to the Railways via Twitter again on the same issue when nothing changed about his morning commute.

People are justifiably angry. They’re calling it “murder by systematic apathy/failure”.

This Twitter user, livid at the incident, even calculated how much each victim should be getting compensated based on number of employable years left. Simply without increments, it amounted to more than one crore, as opposed to the government’s announcement of Rs 5 lakh per person.

After the stampede, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said he has now ordered a high-level enquiry and that "whatever needs to be done, like widening of FOBs" will be done on high priority.

Except, what needs to be done is common and official ministerial knowledge – and it needed to be done before yesterday.

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