Mumbai’s Infrastructure ‘Soup’ Tastes Both Dramatic & Commonplace

Mumbai’s infrastructure soup is certainly a broth that many cooks have stirred.

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(This piece was originally published on 25 July 2017, and is being republished from The Quint’s archives after a building collapse in Mumbai’s Dongri on 16 July 2019.)

Mumbai is in an ‘infrastructure soup’ in two senses, and it is only partly of its own choosing. In one sense, the tragic collapse of a pedestrian bridge in South Mumbai that killed six people yesterday, is only a dramatic indicator of the infrastructural mess of the city. In another sense, ‘infrastructure soup’ recalls the incoherence of the alphabet soup with its floating bits of pasta cut whimsically to the letters of the alphabet. Utter chaos served in the name of newness.

Contradiction in Mumbai’s Mobility Infrastructure Development

Over the last two decades or so, there has been an explosion of aspirational transportation infrastructure projects in the city: flyovers, skywalks, the Sea-Link, metro, and the coastal road. This has been sold to the public with the promise that it is needed to push Mumbai into a higher orbit of the global-city hierarchy.

Freeways, road widening projects, and fifty plus flyovers—not to mention the mind boggling coastal road under construction—are clearly ‘elite’ infrastructure privileging car mobility at the cost of much else.

Pedestrian safety and comfort, the health of people living in buildings along main roads, coastal ecosystems, livelihoods of fisher-folk affected by the sea link and the coastal road are being ignored.

Contradictory strategies are being deployed in the same transport system. While metro is supposed to strengthen public transport, more flyovers choke public roads with polluting cars. Actually, this car seva affects all of us: when was the last time you thought of going out for a stroll down your street?


Steady Erosion of the Everyday Infrastructure

Even as this aspirational infrastructure rises rapidly from the street and the sea, the very ground of everyday infrastructure the city runs on is slowly caving in. Mumbai deals with the everyday horror of deadly road surfaces, suburban trains operating at crushing loads and killing eight or nine people daily, and the alarming decline of (what is no longer) BEST, among others.

In particular, the one transport infrastructure that everybody needs desperatelythe footpath that enables half the work trips in the cityis long gone from the urban infrastructural imagination.

The tragic bridge collapses and stampedes are, then, just the dramatic lows that take attention away from the steady erosion of the everyday infrastructure.

Perhaps, the regular deaths of single motorists falling off two-wheelers at potholes, of pedestrians (especially children) sinking into manholes and open drains, or of (largely dalit) conservancy workers cleaning our sewers, lack the cinematic drama of big things falling and breaking.


Two Tendencies Leading Up to the Present Crisis

Two tendencies may explain the trajectory of current crisis: a possibly new fascination with infrastructure building and the old incapacity for coordination. Is the adrenaline of new infrastructure building (with its political drama and opportunities for rent-seeking) overwhelming the more prosaic commitment to routine competence in maintenance and upgradation? The steady decline of everyday infrastructure alongside the huge investment in the unsustainable and coastal road certainly indicates as much.

The other tendency is an old weakness: the institutional incapacity for coordinated thinking and action even in stronger cities like Mumbai. For instance, the challenges of coordination between the suburban railway establishment (ultimately governed from New Delhi) and the municipal corporation have become highly visible, both in the Elphinstone Road tragedy last year, as well as in the blame game following Thursday’s bridge collapse.

As engineers well know, the operational chasm between these agencies makes building and maintaining foot over bridges or road-over-rail bridges a big headache, even though they are crucial to a city cut up into ‘ribbons’ by the very railway lines that tie it together.

However, it is not just inter-agency coordination that is a challenge: even internal coordination between the Central and Western Railway is a big challenge, according to a former head! Where it exists, the will to adequately repair, maintain or significantly upgrade basic infrastructure must constantly strain against this challenge. On the other hand, big-ticket, one-splash projects automatically involve political and bureaucratic actors at the highest state and central levels in resolving deadlocks or bridging gaps effectively.


Ultimate Responsibility for This Mess Rests with the State Government

Mumbai’s infrastructure soup is certainly a broth that many cooks have stirred. Apart from the Railways, the MCGM, MMRDA, MMRCL, Reliance Metro, MSRDC and the state’s PWD have all been active in the conceptualization and construction of transportation infrastructure. Out of these, only MCGM is under the political control, however tenuous, of the city’s residents. Private players, whether Reliance through its metro or Jog Constructionswhose founder was the head of the committee that gave Mumbai its fifty-flyover plan in the 1990sare completely beyond citizens’ reach.

But it is the state government that must be considered the ultimate author of the infrastructure soup, through the diverse initiatives of parastatals like MMRDA and MSRDC that are not politically accountable to the city’s population. In spite of multiple transportation studies and Comprehensive Mobility Plans, the latitude for ad hoc and fragmentary transport planning at the level of the state government’s involvement in Mumbai’s development remains.

A recent example is again the coastal road, the proposal for which was pushed in paralleland not in coordinationwith the Development Plan under revision, by the very municipal commissioner who might have been expected to coordinate the two.


Mumbai May Learn From Pune

Perhaps, if Mumbai, and the Mumbaikar, could have more political control over its own planning, a more logical, coherent, and sustainable transport planning paradigm might be possible to think of. Pune may show us the way. For long, the number two city in Maharashtra, it has taken important steps towards a more sustainable and coherent transport planning system. The revival of a struggling BRT system, the exemplary commitment to instituting pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and controlling the car cult has been done through city-level policies. It, too, is dogged by typical contradictions, of course: the state and central government-favored Metro is in conflict with the more affordable and resilient BRTS there.

But the relative autonomy the city’s local government seems to have enjoyed has allowed it to forge a new path ahead, through an unusual partnership with civil society.

(Himanshu Burte is Assistant Professor at Centre for Urban Policy and Governance of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Bridge Collapse 

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