Elphinstone Tragedy: How Many Deaths Before We Demand Action?

“Elphinstone Road is the story of almost all urban infrastructure in our cities. It’s a template. It’s a warning.”

4 min read
Hindi Female

When a system is forced to run at four to six times its capacity for years on end, it doesn't break – it was always broken. Elphinstone Road is the story of almost all urban infrastructure in our cities. It's a template. It's a warning. It's our history, our everyday, and our future. It's horrifying. It's utterly banal.

When only death can make you think of repair, maintenance, upkeep, and expansion, then the everydayness of our infrastructure is a state of violence. When that death will still not make you change the way you manage that infrastructure, that violence is a siege, and we have Stockholm Syndrome. Not resilience, but a hostage situation.

The real challenge to us – all of us, at all our locations – is to realise the deep insufficiency of our anger if it is anger just at death. Anger is much needed at the way we live, not just the ways in which we shouldn’t die.

Infrastructure requires processes and systems, not heroes and villains, not even individuals. Processes require governance. That our governance systems are broken is a given whether from neglect or corruption, design or helplessness. It's time (again, yet again) to take a cold, hard look at that, at ourselves. This will happen again. It is already happening everyday.

So how do we move? Not move on, not even necessarily move forward, but how do we move?

I have little hope that we will ever get to a point where we’ll able to hold the state or private providers responsible for criminal negligence – or at least significant civil economic damages – when infrastructural deaths occur, let alone for how systemic under-provision of food, housing, drainage and water diminishes life.

Independent regulatory institutions have mixed records – though perhaps they are better in infrastructure than, say, in labour or financial auditing. I don't think these institutions have a chance to work, if we don't live in and build a more public culture of accountability.


Regulatory and audit institutions get their power not just from their acts but their public legitimacy. How many of us even know that our cities have report cards with Service Level Benchmarks that tell us about the state of infrastructure and services in our cities?

How many of us bother to read the mundaneness of the outrage that is in the annual reports of most of our city’s utilities? If we are not asking questions about why things are the way they are, then that’s partly why they are the way they are. A magical institution that maintains checks and balances can’t do so in public, for it doesn’t know where it is and where it wants to be.

The professionals who should be obsessed with this knowledge learn and unlearn these facts constantly. The fact that what we teach engineering, architecture, design and planning has almost nothing to do with the way our cities actually work, and that’s something that many of us have been trying to change.

Did you know that architects are taught courses on repair only vis-a-vis heritage, even though most of our housing is actually built through a little construction and a lot of repair? Did you know that engineers are taught how to design infrastructure in networks that look so neat on paper but don’t actually exist in most of our cities?  And after all this, we speak of the beauty of our “jugaad” instead of reading it as a symptom of precisely where our systems and processes break.

Sometimes, I dream of volunteer cadres of engineers, architects, urban practitioners, designers, and citizens who walk the streets volunteering labour, time and expertise. I confess that sometimes I think this is a nightmare (see: "expertise," above) but that's what imperfect but critical ways of moving forward look like.

Battles against structural violence are hard to fight. There’s no one person to blame, no silver bullet that fixes it, no technology that can make the problem go away. The anger is hard to sustain. So when this one passes, let’s hold onto one ember of it; to any one question that stays with us that we just keep asking again and again whether its on capacity, or design, or maintenance, or repair, or why Mumbai got a new airport and a new road link before new train lines. Let it be any question you think worth asking so that you will remember to keep finding ways to ask it whether it’s in the neighbourhood, the newspaper, the street, the workspace or in a government department.

If our anger can give us that, then maybe we will have some right to mourn those who died.


(This article was first posted here and has been republished with the author’s permission. Gautam Bhan teaches at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bengaluru.)

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