THE TEEMING commuter trains in Mumbai have received a modest overhaul in recent years. Coaches have been redesigned to offer better ventilation; the hard, angular seats have been replaced with more comfortable ones; and a plan to air-condition the heaving carriages is under way. But as soon as the 8m-odd passengers who ride the trains every day arrive at their destination, they face infrastructure that is as neglected as ever, in the form of the pedestrian bridges by which they cross tracks or busy roads near the stations.
On March 14th a big part of one such overpass collapsed outside Shivaji Terminus, one of the city’s busiest stations, killing six people and injuring 31. The toll could have been worse: the plunging debris did not harm any passengers in vehicles below as a red light happened to be holding traffic back at the fateful moment.
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“It was terrible,” says a taxi driver who witnessed the tragedy. Yet there have been many accidents like it. In 2017, 22 commuters were crushed to death in a stampede on another railway footbridge. It was barely six feet wide, yet carried over 100,000 people every rush hour. More than 30 lives have been lost in other accidents involving overpasses over the past two years.
Last year an audit found that 18 of the 296 bridges in the city were dangerous. That is probably an underestimate. The bridge that failed last week had been judged safe by inspectors, who thought it needed only “minor repairs”.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is part of the coalition that runs the municipal government, disingenuously called the tragedy “a natural calamity”. The city’s administrators gave an inkling of their attitude when they first claimed that the railway was responsible for maintaining the bridge before conceding that they were, in fact, in charge. They then pointed the finger at the inspector, from an external audit firm. He, in turn, claimed that wet paint and newly laid tiles had prevented him from inspecting the bridge properly. He has been arrested. The construction firm behind the refurbishment in question has also been accused of “substandard repair work”. The city government had blacklisted it in 2017, accusing it of inflating bills and using adulterated material to build roads. Yet it was inexplicably still left in charge of maintaining the overpass.
“There is no inter-agency co-ordination and the entire system is designed for kickbacks,” gripes Sayli Udas-Mankikar of Observer Research Foundation, a local think-tank. Vital information about the materials used to build older bridges is often missing. Contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder, regardless of the quality of their work. “The process is flawed. If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys. And our lives are at stake,” says Rajiv Mishra, an urban planner, who used to cross the defunct bridge four times a day.
The city is conducting fresh inspections of some 150 bridges. On March 22nd a local court will hear a petition demanding that the city government do more to strengthen the rickety ones. Opposition leaders have called for more radical action. They want the city and state governments to ditch a multi-billion-dollar bullet-train project until they can get the basics right.