Fault Line in a City: How Do We Prevent the Next Elphinstone?

Reasons behind Elphinstone Road stampede can be traced to improper urban planning, poor design & government apathy. 

4 min read
Fault Line in a City: How Do We Prevent the Next Elphinstone?

(This article was first published on 3 October 2017 and is being republished in the aftermath of a CST overbridge collapse on 14 March 2019.)

The stampede at Elphinstone Road railway station in Mumbai, that killed twenty-three people, turned a daily routine for hundreds of commuters into a nightmare. Most stampede tragedies in India, have occurred on special occasions such as religious festivals, but the tragedy at Elphinstone stood out for its everydayness.

A local railway station is a part of every city’s basic daily-use infrastructure — and it failed spectacularly in the form of a narrow, ancient, rickety foot-over-bridge. But what went wrong? Is the design of railway stations to blame? Or is there a broader ignorance behind how we plan our cities?

The Quint speaks to urban planners, transport experts and architects to understand the fault lines in how we plan and live in our cities.

Too long to read? Listen to the story here.


When a Mill District Became a Mall Area

Now known for its swanky office complexes, Lower Parel and Elphinstone Road was once known by a different name — ‘Giran-gaon’ or the city of textile mills. After the mills shut down in 1980s and 1990s, redevelopment of the mill lands (prime real estate in Central Mumbai) caused a radical shift in land use in Mumbai — it changed the city’s skyline.

The mills were replaced by corporate offices, restaurants and malls. But the civic infrastructure in the area wasn’t revamped in keeping with the radical burst in population that followed. Urban planner Chandrashekar Prabhu says:

With the mills, there was no pressure on stations like Elphinstone Road and Lower Parel since the mill workers lived in these areas, and those who used local trains travelled in various work-shifts. But as this became a corporate hub/office area, everyone began to use the trains in the morning and evening rush hours at the same time

A city’s infrastructure should keep up with changing demographics and the lack of infrastructural development which accompanied redevelopment of textile mills was a lost opportunity — and a root cause of the Elphinstone Road stampede. What worked for mill workers in the late 90s won’t be adequate for thrice the volume of office goers in 2017. Rishi Aggarwal, director of Mumbai Sustainability Centre and an urbanisation expert says:

From an urban planning perspective, the focus is on how the mill districts became offices with no change in transportation facilities. If you look, there are still narrow roads around Elphinstone and Lower Parel. From an urban planning perspective, changes should have been made by 2005-07. 

A Faulty Design & an Insensitive Government

There are many flaws in the design of Elphinstone Road local railway station — which could have been rectified with simple infrastructural changes.

The threshold area between the railway station and the road gets flooded immediately. When it is raining, most places in the station are flooded and there are water pools everywhere. There is no shelter, that’s why commuters took refuge under the foot-over bridge — it is an ideal case of stampede. 
Chandrashekhar Prabhu, Urban Planner

But who’s responsible for the lack of action in redevelopment of railway stations? In 2015, a nine-member panel was set up by Central Railways and a 25-member team by Western Railways to address accidental deaths on Mumbai’s suburban trains. Out of the 19 MPs in the 25-member panel, only one MP showed up. Speaking to the Hindustan Times in 2015, Subhash Gupta criticized the “negligent attitude” of politicians in addressing “issues passengers face.” Himanshu Burte, architect and assistant professor at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) also raises the issue of coordination between government and the railways.

The question is, how spaces like exits and staircases are designed. What kind of systems are in place to review and how has railways been monitoring the systems? Is there enough of a response? There are two main points - lack of coordination between the city and the railways and no real commitment to fixing infrastructure issues. 
Himanshu Burte, Assistant Professor, School of Habitat Studies, TISS

Where Do We Go Now?

In the aftermath of the Elphinstone Road stampede, it’s a question which most Mumbaikars are asking in anger and frustration. Forget the famous ‘spirit of Mumbai’ and perennial resistance — what are the things which can be immediately done to prevent a similar stampede from occurring in Mumbai’s local railway stations? Rishi Aggarwal extends some easy-to-implement and affordable solutions:

The foot-over-bridge in the Elphinstone Station is 79 inches and the capacity of the bridge can be increased to double — immediately. The ticket window can be shifted to the side. The stampede occurred because people wanted shelter from the rain, so other shelters can be constructed for less than 1 crore, if the government wants. 

As Mumbai returns to normalcy after the stampede, the question which remains is what will it take for the government to prevent another stampede like the disaster at Elphinstone Road station. As Rishi Aggarwal says:

“If heads are not going to roll, then this will be business as usual, we will keep hearing about the ‘spirit of Mumbai’. We can’t wake up only when 23 people lose their lives.”

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