A mandatory safety audit is desirable, not just in railway stations but in all congested public places, which includes schools, hospitals, temples and even malls. Hence, let us treat the Elphinstone FOB stampede as an unfortunate eye-opener and usher in a new safety revolution. As for India’s disgruntled opposition which pounces upon every opportunity to ridicule the government, my humble plea is: stop feasting upon human tragedies.
The Railway Ministry’s response to the unfortunate Elphinstone tragedy is unprecedented and sets a new norm for sensitivity towards passengers. What happened on the morning of Mahanavmi at the Elphinstone Road station is most unfortunate and might leave an indelible scar on the psyche of Mumbaikars. In an hour of tragedy, the public anger needs to be empathised with and understood. However, beyond the initial outrage, It is equally important to put things in perspective and take a more objective view of railway infrastructure in Mumbai.
The Mumbai suburban network is an intense system spread over 465 km, carrying more than 76 lakh commuters and 2300 trains every day, that too only on the surface. Comparable urban transport systems like those in Tokyo, Beijing or Shanghai do have the numbers, but are mostly underground or elevated. Given the limitations of space in Mumbai, imposed by its geography and the extremely high density of population, any significant overhaul of existing infrastructure needs to be handled with caution as the inconvenience caused to commuters in the intervening period is often high. A glaring example is the construction of Metro Rail across Mumbai.
After lying dormant for nearly 10 years, the Metro rail projects were simultaneously revived and expedited all across Mumbai last year, with a targeted completion in the next three years. This has resulted in vast areas of the city being dug up, leading to slower movement of traffic. Given the earnestness of the government to complete these projects at the earliest and the fact this comprehensive rail network would be a game-changer for Mumbai, one would expect co-operation during the construction phase. But instead, ironically, there are segments which are endlessly criticising the government for the same.
In the case of this particular foot-over bridge on Elphinstone Road, nobody denies that it was in urgent need of widening and overburdened. But it would help to focus on facts, than rhetoric. Based on a request from the local Shiv Sena MP, the then Railways Minister had steadfastly
allocated Rs 12 Crores in February 2016 for widening of FOB at Elphistone Road. So the intent of the government cannot be questioned here. Whether it was bureaucratic inertia or callousness of certain officials that held back the repair work, is something only a proper investigation will reveal. Why the local Shiv Sena never followed up after the speedy sanction of required funds, is equally questionable. Whatever be the cause of delay, sadly it cannot bring back the 23 lives lost.
At the same time, with due respect what happened last Friday was a freak mishap which could have happened on any congested road- even in the clustered approach roads leading to some of the news channel studios in Lower Parel. Fact is even in the most advanced countries of the world with the best infrastructure, zero mishap is impossible. That’s of course not to say that we can afford to look the other way when it comes to overhauling the city’s rail infrastructure. And this is where the intent and immediate, proactive response of Railway minister, Piyush Goyal deserves appreciation.
In just the last two days, Goyal has persuasively turned the situation on its head and clearly set a new norm for sensitivity towards rail passengers. While keeping FOBs at the centre of his passenger safety overhaul plan, he has rightly taken a holistic, all-pervasive view, that is not confined to FOBs or just the city.
First of all, a complete safety audit of all Mumbai suburban stations will be completed on a war footing in a week’s time, setting the precedent for a similar exercise across the country.
Secondly, 23 new FOBs have been approved for widening on Western line and 20 new on the Central line, work on all of which will be completed in 12 months. With this urgency, FOBs are rightly a matter of ‘safety’ now and not just ‘amenity’.
Thirdly, 92 escalators for stations with high footfall have been identified and given in-principle approval.
Fourthly, all coaches of local rail will have CCTV cameras in the next 15 months. Hence, a crucial aspect concerning women’s safety will be addressed simultaneously.
Fifthly, a slew of administrative measures have been undertaken to eliminate the slightest delay. General Managers (GMs) have been empowered to spend whatever necessary on safety issues for the next 18 months. GMs have to intimate financial commissioner (FC) within a week of sanction for provision. FC need to sanction requests within 15 days. In case of disagreement, matter needs to be put before Railway board in 15 days.
Finally, the top and most competent officers will be shifted to field duty for first hand monitoring and revamp of the system. 200 officers from headquarters are being put on field duty right away. 75 of the most brilliant and enthusiastic station directors are being posted at the most crucial stations across India from a railway safety perspective.
Given the government apathy of the past, the Minister could well have let things be, now that the tender for widening of the ill-fated FOB is out. Instead, he has attempted a paradigm change in our approach towards safety.
A mandatory safety audit is desirable, not just in railway stations but in all congested public places, which includes schools, hospitals, temples and even malls. Hence, let us treat the Elphinstone FOB stampede as an unfortunate eye-opener and usher in a new safety revolution.
As for India’s disgruntled opposition which pounces upon every opportunity to ridicule the government, my humble plea is : stop feasting upon human tragedies.
(Tuhin Sinha is a well known author and columnist)