The viral photo of 640 Afghans crammed in a US air force transport plane made global news but we are yet to see the inside of a Mumbai local train after fully vaccinated commuters were allowed to board on Independence Day.
Newspaper photographs of women commuters jostling to board a train at Thane station, 34 km from downtown, and of men leaping from one train to another at another intermediate station indicate that there is a surge in the number of commuters. The question to ask is whether or not commuters are able to maintain social distancing and Covid-appropriate behaviour. Also, can the railway authorities control overcrowding in the days to come? The answers to these questions is of paramount importance as the pandemic is far from over and we can be in for a rude shock if we are not careful.
By all accounts, the number of commuters is rising. On Monday, which was a public holiday, 34 lakh persons travelled by local trains. By the end of the month, the number is expected to swell to 40 lakh, which is almost half the number during pre-Covid times. A ninecoach Mumbai local is designed for 1,500 commuters but it carries thrice its capacity at crush hour. This amounts to 500 commuters per coach. By comparison the 740 Afghans were travelling in comfort in the belly of the transport plane. The world was shocked to see Afghans clinging to the plane and falling off the skies, but no one bats an eyelid when four Mumbai commuters fall to their death from local trains every day. Railway engineers who have had to reinforce the floor of the coaches call it Super-Dense Crush Load. This is the challenging ordeal Mumbai’s residents as well as its planners must face.
An overwhelming 55 per cent of Mumbai uses local trains and they spend anywhere between half-an-hour to four hours a day commuting as compared to the world average commuting time of 80 minutes. The challenge before us is to come up with a win-win solution or even a half-way solution to commuting. Should the bulk of the trains be reserved exclusively for those from the satellite townships who depend solely on trains? Should offices have staggered timings and holidays? Can employers go easy on physical presence where work can be done online? Can the government ease the pain of the public by subsidising or even rationalising power bills? Can we come up with an app to make commuting easier during these times? Can we fumigate the trains after each trip? Are we willing to insure the commuters against the third wave? Failure to find acceptable answers to these questions will backfire on the move to ease the lockdown and all the gains of the painstaking fight against Covid will go down the drain.
The larger issue is that the city’s planners have never given serious thought to railway commuters who are packed liked sardines. Even if a local train were to carry only 700 commuters in place of the designed capacity of 1,500, the railways can carry just 22 lakh commuters a day; one-fourth of the pre-Covid figure. With tracks spread over 465 km – more than the distance between Pune and back -- the Mumbai suburban railway carries 7.5 million commuters daily, almost one-third of the population of Australia. Despite this, Mumbai suburban is not an independent railway zone. It is partitioned between two giants; the Western Railway zone which stretches from Churchgate to Ratlam and the Central Railway zone whose jurisdiction runs from CSMT to Nagpur and Solapur. Mumbai suffers as it cannot be the priority for either. Even in this pandemic, no one has ever heard of a public consultation held by the railways with Mumbai commuters. Had Mumbai been an independent railway zone, it wouldn’t have taken commuters’ riots to go from nine-coach to 12- coach trains, commuters wouldn’t have to wait 10 years to get one air-conditioned train, it wouldn’t take three years and dozens of deaths to close the yawning gap between the footboard of the new trains and the platform and certainly there would be a be glitch-free opening of the suburban railway system.
If Mumbai’s railway commuters were a vote bank, road projects would not have been every government’s priority. Mumbai’s coastal road, which will be used largely by the elite, has a budget of Rs 13,000 cr. The monorail is a white elephant which cost Rs 2,700 cr and incurs a loss of Rs 10 lakh a day. Mumbai’s suburban railway can be overhauled at the cost of Rs 15,000 cr, reducing the headway (frequency between trains on the same track) from four minutes to two, doubling the capacity of the suburban train network. Imagine how many cars this would take off the road. Instead, the thing on everyone’s mind is the upcoming Metro network of 235 km at a cost of Rs 100,000 cr. It is slated to be fully functional by 2025 but will easily take up to the end of the decade going by the way the plot for a key metro depot has become a political football. In this sense, the pandemic reinforces the image of the local trains as the lifeline of Mumbai.
Coming back to the crisis on hand, the government must also look at ensuring faster vaccination. As of now, only 18 per cent of the population in the Mumbai Metropolitan region is fully vaccinated. Better surveillance is also called for. As of August 17, there were 4,408 new cases and 116 deaths in Maharashtra with a case fatality rate of 2.11 per cent. The corresponding figures for Mumbai are 198 new cases and two deaths with a recovery rate of 97 per cent. However, this could be the lull before the storm. Maximum City needs maximum care.
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