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How Unsmart Are Our Smart Cities? Rethinking Urban Transportation

Mumbai stampede has left a gaping hole in the reality of urban transportation in our daily lives.

Updated
India
4 min read
In urban mess, it is time we rethink our transportation system.
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The death of 23 people in a stampede at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road station has been described as a tragedy waiting to happen. Regular commuters of Mumbai’s local trains have for long highlighted the dangers of overcrowded foot-over-bridges in the stations at Elphinstone Road, Parel, Dadar and Currey Road. In fact, there have been about 100 tweets sent to the Railway Ministry which forewarned that a stampede was likely in these foot-over-bridges unless the authorities acted urgently. Even the mostly absent MP Sachin Tendulkar had asked the Railway Ministry if it had identified the high-density stations where additional foot-over-bridges would be required.

Given this context, the stampede is being seen not just as a human tragedy but as murder caused by the negligence of the state. The Railway Ministry has been blamed for failing to act despite repeated warnings. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also drawn flak for prioritising vanity projects like bullet trains instead of focusing on basic railway infrastructure.

MNS supremo Raj Thackeray even went on to warn that “not a single brick will be allowed to be placed for the bullet train in Mumbai” until the infrastructure of local railways was improved. These responses highlight systemic issues on the governance of local trains and the policy priorities of the government.

Also read: Post Elphinstone Stampede, Can We Trust Railways With Our Lives?

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Centralising Municipal Functions

To understand the systemic issue, we must first ask: Why did citizens of Mumbai have to tweet to the union minister for Railways for fixing a foot-over-bridge for the local train? Why did they not approach the mayor or commissioner of Mumbai or even the chief minister of Maharashtra?

The fact that the municipal government, or even the state government, does not have any control over its local train system points to how centralised the Indian state is. While Piyush Goyal’s swift response (or damage control measure, depending on how one sees it) in taking important measures for rail safety needs to be appreciated, it is still an instance of Delhi-based decision making.

It is not just in case of local trains that the municipal government is powerless. The whole of the urban transport sector is outside its purview.

Metro rail services in our cities are run by companies that are usually joint ventures between the central and state governments, while the monopoly of bus service providers are mostly under a state government-controlled company. These service companies are not accountable to the municipal government. This is bewildering because urban transport is quintessentially a municipal function. In fact, globally if there is one agenda that the mayor focuses on in his election campaign and city plans, it is urban transportation.

The roots of such institutional incoherence in Indian cities run deep. In our constitutional vision for municipal government, urban transportation does not exist.

The 74th Constitutional Amendment, which gave constitutional status for our municipal governments, is not as far reaching as it is often made out to be. The amendment made to the Constitution with the 12th Schedule contains a list of 18 functions that have to be devolved to the city government. Interestingly, while urban planning, roads, water supply and sanitation figures feature in this list, urban transportation is conspicuously absent.

Even for constitutionally recognised municipal functions like urban planning and regulation of land use, we find that in most cities it is the state government-controlled Development Authority that undertake these tasks instead of the municipal government. Bringing urban transportation under the city’s control, hence, seems like an even bigger challenge.

For cities to be more responsive to the needs and aspirations of its inhabitants, it is imperative that the city government is politically, financially and administratively empowered to undertake essential municipal functions including urban transportation.

Also read: Elphinstone Tragedy: How Many Deaths Before We Demand Action?

Visions of Grandeur

The stampede comes closely on the heels of Prime Minister Modi laying the foundation stone for the 110,000-crore bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The striking contrast between India’s ambitions for its railway system and its present realties, which was already looking far from rosy due to a string of train derailments, were reinforced with this incident.

Having bullet trains and good rail infrastructure are, however, not mutually exclusive. Notably, the funding model for the bullet train is markedly different since it is largely financed by a loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) with an interest rate of 0.1 percent per annum. Hence, aborting the bullet train project will not help in funding the renovation of local train infrastructure.

However, more than the question of funding, what we should critically examine is the development imagination of the Indian state. The bullet train project, which is scheduled to be complete by 2022, has been described as a “symbol of New India” by PM Modi. It can, hence, be seen as the 21st century equivalent of Nehru’s “temples of Modern India”. However, the purpose served by bullet trains is completely different from those served by dams, power plants and scientific research institutes. We are now embracing a more glitzy version of modernity that improves very few lives.

The urban imagination of today is captured by the narratives around bullet trains and smart cities. These imaginaries are perhaps psychologically more liberative than an agenda that focuses on fixing our cities’ broken infrastructure, transport systems, waste management and housing facilities.

As the power of narrative is often stronger than that of reality, it is important for us to restate the need for addressing the banal, mundane and un-sexy municipal issues. Visions of grandeur should not blind us from the basic civic concerns that confront us in our daily lives.

Also watch: Can Never Forget The Horror I Saw: Elphinstone Stampede Survivor

Mathew Idiculla is a lawyer and researcher on urban issues and works with the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru.

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