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How a bad decision in 1970 caused Mumbai's deaths today

The causes for the two deaths on the Central Railway on Thursday have their roots in the refusal of the Maharashtra Government to shift its own headquarters to Navi Mumbai, and along with it, the legislature building etc. in the 1970s. If it had, the way Mumbai and the adjoining cities live and earn their livelihoods would have been entirely different, with fewer people flocking to Mumbai.

That single move would have provided a new focal point for the city instead of South Mumbai remaining the draw. When the government did not move, others also showed scant interest in shifting base. So jobs remained fewer outside of Mumbai. And a new city that was initially intended to be a countermagnet, morphed into mostly a dormitory. Now, even the dormitories are hosts to slums which again rise early to run to Mumbai to service it.

Even if more people move to the suburbs they must still commute to the city: AP

Even later planners only developed newer business nodes like the Bandra-Kurla Complex and plan others in Malad and Wadala continuing to make the biggest draw for jobs both in white-collared and blue-collared sectors. Such choices by planners, who were long advised against making the city and the larger city region we now call the Mumbai metropolitan region (MMR) into a linear urban swath have not seen reason.

Linking the two deaths and several injuries on Thursday is not a stretch because even while the dormitory cities grew to feed Mumbai’s manpower needs, the transport sector was on the backburner. When people find Mumbai overcrowded and overpriced, they flock to the satellites and put up with several inconveniences, but cannot avoid the daily torture of a journey to Mumbai.

It is where most jobs are, are and going by the trend, that's how it will be, even well into the future.

The longer the city region extends, right across the southern parts of Thane and into Raigad’s Alibaug, the more the pressure on the railways. No amount of expenditure is going to alter the fact that the infrastructure cannot catch up to the build-up of backlogs. This explains, for all the above reasons, the two deaths on Thursday, because the train just did not have place for them on it.. But no one is going to wake up, because this will be just dismissed as an accident.

Wednesday was a day of horror because a fire in the signalling system in Kurla disrupted the services so badly that the entire Central Railway crumbled, people taking almost half a day to get to work. Thursday saw fewer trains than normal, and that created chaotic travel conditions further cramping the footboard upon which people perch to get to their destinations. Those who died fell off from there.

Even if we were to look at the deaths as accidents, it would be off the mark. On an annual basis, over 3,500 to 4,000 commuters die on the local railway lines that link Mumbai, its several parts and the extended suburbs. On an average, that is about 10-12 deaths a day, spread over the Central and Western Railways. That makes the two deaths on Thursday a little less than par for the course. Those deaths mostly were people being mowed down when crossing the tracks. Fewer actually fall of trains.

Having said that, the deaths have to be seen in the context of the reason which the railways have conceded: it was ‘obviously because of overcrowding’ but trains are anyhow overcrowded. Anyone who travels on these trains with its daily super-dense crush capacity crowd would vouch for how even sardines would hate a Mumbai commuter coach.

So what’s new? With more people leaning out than is normally the case, the trains literally swelled and more people were precariously hanging out, battling through the journey. The reduction of only a claimed 15 per cent capacity on Thursday, indicates that the commuter system has reached the saturation point despite speeding up the trains, reducing the frequencies, and creating more carrying capacity by converting nine-coach trains to 12-coaches trains and even 15 in some cases.

When meaningful employment opportunities do not emerge in these places, Mumbai would continue to be the magnet which would not alter but only accentuate the problem. When more and more come to take up residences in these satellites but depend on Mumbai, the city’s population growth could retard but the pressure on the trains only relentlessly increase.

This mismatch can only be handled by vesting more economic opportunities in the city region known as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) so that those who live there manage to go to work within their own satellite cities or go to another instead of to Mumbai. But a new problem arises. For instance, Bhiwandi residents who lived off powerlooms found that was inadequate to meet job needs of a growing population and they travel to Mumbai and how!

Take a rickety bus to Kalyan and dash for a train, or change into a bus at Kalyan-Bhiwandi Naka such as they come, travel to Thane and catch a commuter train. It takes longer to travel thus to Thane than it does from there to Mumbai. And they add to the woes of passenger traffic originating from Thane itself. These kinds of micro-view of passenger needs are ignored in big metropolitan plans. The MMR Development Authority (MMRDA) remains smitten with Mumbai, neglecting the rest.

If intra-MMR transport enabled easier movement of people, perhaps fewer of them would need to come daily to Mumbai. Severe infrastructure lags are a feature of these dormitories even within each of these cities. Bhiwandi, Ulhasnagar, Vasai-Virar have no internal bus service, Thane’s is woefully managed with less than half its fleet on the roads and Navi Mumbai’s is nothing to write home about. That hardly gives a leg up to the local economy, making Mumbai the only beacon.

No wonder, two lives were lost on Thursday. The blame lies with the planners, the administrators, and not the long-suffering commuter who defies the shortcomings heaped on him and yet works hard. But who cares, for policies don’t have, in our style of functioning, to match the true needs.