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Maximum neglect: on Elphinstone stampede (hindu)

The Mumbai stampede was preventable; pedestrian access must be ensured in all cities

Mumbai’s ghastly suburban railway stampede, in which 23 people died after being crushed on a narrow staircase, was the inevitable consequence of prolonged neglect of urban public transport in India. The financial capital depends mainly on the 300 km suburban system, which has some of the highest passenger densities for any city railway in the world. Yet, it has no single accountable manager. It is unthinkable for a modern railway system to continue with business as usual when about 3,500 people die on its tracks in a year. But Mumbai goes on. Over the past two decades, policy attention has tilted towards road projects, with just token appreciation of the challenges faced by public transport users. The Elphinstone Road station stampede should lead to a course correction and re-ordering of mass transport in all cities. Augmenting the creaking and broken infrastructure at suburban stations should be a high priority, and with good management practices, this can be achieved speedily. Creating canopies to shield passengers, such as those crowding the staircase to escape the rain in Mumbai, putting in escalators and lifts, and providing exits on both sides of train coaches towards the street level wherever feasible, will facilitate movement. These are inexpensive, off-the-shelf solutions. Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has called for a quick survey of the suburban stations to identify areas of concern, but this is something that should have been done without waiting for a disaster, and it must now be extended to all cities.

Reforming archaic transport planning and management for urban India remains the still bigger challenge. Mumbai’s geography produces a distinct north-south commuting pattern from the periphery, since the business district is located at the peninsular southern end. A sound transport demand management strategy would consider mapping travel patterns, and shifting some institutions to areas in the wider Mumbai Metropolitan Region where infrastructure, including housing, and amenities can be planned in advance. The latest carnage is evidence of the failure of civic policy to factor in the need for pedestrian access, and it applies not just to stations but to the wider city. The number of private vehicles and taxis has grown in Mumbai by four and six times, respectively, over the past two decades, leading to lobbying for wider roads and more flyovers, while mass mobility systems and facilities for walkers and cycle-users have not received similar attention. Skewed policies cannot help. The immediate requirement to end civic bedlam is to remove physical and policy bottlenecks: clear pathways inside and adjoining railway stations of obstacles, install escalators, create multiple entry and exit points, and put in place an organised feeder transport network to stations and bus termini. The families of the dead and the injured should be given exemplary compensation, to reinforce the accountability of the railway administration.

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