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Not a Tragedy: CSMT Bridge Collapse in Mumbai and Systemic Violence of Class Power in Indian Urban Transport Policies

Sanjay Kumar |
While existing cheaper public transport facilities bleed, the urban-scape of Indian cities is being remodelled for faster private travel over flyovers, elevated corridors, and expensive roadways on sea and coast.
Not a Tragedy: CSMT Bridge Collapse in Mumbai and Systemic Violence of Class Power in Indian Urban Transport Policies

Image for representational use only.Image Courtesy : The Indian Express

Six people died after a section of an important foot over bridge near the main city railway station in Mumbai collapsed during the evening rush hour on March 14. Photographs after the collapse show gaping holes of the steel skeleton of the bridge against a dark sky, without concrete slabs on which people walked. Two of the nurses who died were going for their night shift in a nearby hospital, others would have been rushing home after a busy day. Concrete slabs of the bridge, which supported them above the road below, would have been the last thing on their mind. Yet, as these slabs crumbled under their very feet, and they fell on the road below, the very content of their humanity, their concerns and hopes, were overwhelmed by horror and cries. Falling people died, just like that.

Unanticipated deaths, euphemistically called accidents, are not uncommon to Mumbai’s transport infrastructure. Twenty three people had died in September 2017 on a bridge at Elphinstone railway station. Pedestrian bridges have collapsed in Andheri and Mahad. And then there are every-day deaths, which happen so routinely that even media does not care to report them. Approximately nine humans are killed every day in the Mumbai suburban railway system. Two thirds of them die while trying to cross railway tracks. Rest die falling from overcrowded coaches, or hitting electricity poles.

These deaths may be unanticipated, but reasons for them, like the quality of crumbling concrete slabs at the CMST bridge, are fairly well known. Reportedly, there are 89 foot over bridges for 136 suburban railway stations in the Mumbai suburban railway system. Most bridges were made four decades ago, when the number of people using the railway system was half its current number. Trip frequency and number of coaches have reached system’s limits, yet coaches are overcrowded because no additional tracks have been laid for decades. Crowded coaches are suffocating because their design has not changed for nearly fifty years. In fact, calling these deaths accidental is a collective trick we play on ourselves. It is within the technical and financial resources of the city to prevent, or at least minimise, these deaths. However, preventing them is not among the priorities of city administrators. Their plans and resources are focused elsewhere.

Also Read: Collapsed Mumbai Bridge Was Declared ‘Safe’ With Need For ‘Minor Repairs’

Urban Transport in the Neoliberal Era

Urban transport infrastructure in India is currently moving in two directions. One is the provision of flyovers, elevated road corridors, and freeways for private motorised transport. The other is the push for Metro, as the public transport of choice. Simultaneously, public buses, and suburban railways, which remain the cheapest means of urban transport, and on which overwhelming majority of the people of a city like Mumbai rely, are on starvation diet. The Mumbai suburban railway system provides close to eight million passenger-trips every day, making it the most heavily used urban transport system in India, and comparable to some of the largest systems in the world. BEST buses transport 45% of the city’s road users. Yet, both these systems have seen little new investments. The Mumbai Urban Transport Project-III (MUTP-III), proposed in 2010 for the expansion of suburban railways, is still in pipeline. More immediately needed solutions like creation of extra spaces in stations for passenger mobility, and redesigned coaches for better air circulation and faster entry and exit, are absent in any plans.

The BEST bus fleet has been made to suffer losses ever since the Supreme court in 2016 disallowed cross-subsidy from electricity supply earnings, and the municipal corporation refused to subsidise its operations. The size of the fleet, 4,200 in 2010, had declined to 3,300 in 2015. According to the citizens’ collective Amchi Mumbai Amchi Best, 18% of routes have been scrapped. The result is that the number of passenger trips, which were 42 lakhs in 2010, came down to 30 lakhs in 2018.

While existing cheaper public transport facilities bleed, the urban-scape of Indian cities is being remodelled for faster private travel over flyovers, elevated corridors, and expensive roadways on sea and coast. At Rs 100 crore per kilometre, elevated corridors are among the costliest urban infrastructure projects, next only to tunnels for Metro which cost Rs 300 crore per km. Mumbai has spent Rs 1600 crore on the Eastern Freeway. The same amount was spent on the 6 km Bandra Worli Sea Link. Around Rs 12,000 crore is going to be spent on the Western Coast expressway. Similar developments have taken place in Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai, and are on their way in mid-tier cities. All are meant for the fast transit of four wheeled private vehicles.

Also Read: Transport Workers’ Strike: Public Transports Keep Off Roads Across The Country

In a way, a private four-wheeler is an epitome of privatised bourgeois life in public. With windows rolled up, and climate control and entertainment system on, passengers are isolated from the public life outside. It is a private cocoon on transit. Yet, it cannot go anywhere in the absence of publicly provided road space. This mirrors the rule of private property, whose fruits cannot be enjoyed, unless an entire state machinery, including its means of violence, and a conducive public sphere has been created. A bus carries fifty times more passengers on average than a car, yet occupies only three times more road surface. Thus, a good 17 times more road space is used for the transit of a car passenger, than a poorer city dweller. Also, since cars do not carry their own parking spaces, they occupy publicly provided parking spaces when not in transit. The domination of their interest over urban transport public policy is a manifestation of the rule of the propertied Indian over majority of urban dwellers.

Neo-liberalism naturalises the remodelling of urban transport through its fundamental policy prescription of privatisation of public resources. Building flyovers, elevated corridors, and freeways are one shot affairs of public spending. All of these are built by private contractors. Once built, their maintenance can also be contracted out. On the other hand, urban public transport resists privatisation, particularly if it is to remain accessible to urban working poor. Everywhere it is a state managed and supported service, requiring the state to be directly and continually involved in providing an essential service. The latter is anathema to neo-liberal fundamentalists.

Even though the majority of city dwellers in India are never going to own a car, neo-liberal reshaping of urban transport gains acceptability due to successes of ‘aspirational’ consumerism. Reflecting visions of this consumerism, the Detailed Project Reports (DPR) of all road projects assume an increasing rate of car ownership. However, urban planner Hussain Indorewala shows how the realisation of this aspirational utopia is actually going to be a dystopia. Based on car ownership rates assumed in the DPR of Mumbai West Coast expressway, he shows that if these were to materialise, just by being on road, these cars will take the entire road space planned in its latest city development plan. The effects of such bumper to bumper traffic are already visible on existing expressways.

According to Mumbai Environmental Social Network, the vehicular flow in the Western Expressway during peak hour traffic has decreased by 25% in six years due to congestion. On the other hand, toll roads favoured by the ‘user pay fee’ model remain underutilised. The eight lane Bandra-Worli Sea Link designed for 1,20,000 vehicles crossings per day sees only 37000 crossings. Its toll revenues, between Rs 70-80 crore per year, are less than 30% of projected earnings, and are insufficient to cover even interest on the Rs 1,600 crore spent on it. Similar under-utilisation and insufficient toll realisation exist on the NOIDA Agra Expressway near Delhi, whose owner Jaypee Infratech is facing bankruptcy proceedings. Aspirational Indians may be ready to own private vehicles, but even modest highway tolls pinch their pocket. Fancy infrastructural projects are becoming white elephants; good as tourist attractions, but not integrated into the economics of urban mobility.

Metro in India: Another White Elephant in the Making

The country’s most successful Delhi Metro got a rare distinction in the past few years. The ridership in January and February 2018 was respectively 14 and 17 % less than two years ago in 2016. This must be one of the very few examples in the history of urban mass transit that ridership of a functional and expanding system of a burgeoning city has dropped. The reason is two steep fare hikes. A five km journey now costs Rs 30/, at a whopping Rs 6/ per km. A return journey above 32 km eats up to 25% of the daily earnings of a person making the legal minimum wage. Most workers in the informal sector of the economy earn much less. Hence, it is not surprising that most working people use Metro only rarely, and it mainly caters to the city’s middle classes.

The only operational Line 1 of Mumbai Metro has incurred heavy losses. At the end of year 2017-18, its liabilities exceeded its assets by Rs 977 crore. According to anecdotal evidence, the recently inaugurated Lucknow Metro is considered good by locals only for a joyride. Existing share autos, called Vikrams in city lingo, remain the preferred mode of transport as these are cheap and readily available, despite being unsafe and overcrowded.

With eleven functioning systems, five under construction and seven under various stages of approval, Metro train system in India appears to have come of age. Politically, it is the most viable symbol of urban development, which ticks all correct boxes of high and sleek technology, public amenity, and environmental protection. However, the Achilles heel of Metro systems in India is that at two to three rupees per kilometre per passenger operational cost even for a large system like Delhi’s, it is too expensive for ordinary city dwellers. Hence, even for large cities like Delhi or Mumbai, it is unlikely to achieve economies of scale achieved in places like Tokyo, Beijing, London or Shanghai. It is necessary to subsidise Metro fares till wages rise sufficiently so that it is within the reach of an average city dweller. For this,it is essential that public funds be focused on larger systems which are likely to become viable in near future, rather than spread thinly to take more and more cities on the Metro bandwagon. Here again, the class roots of neo-liberal fundamentalism block a rational approach. Public spending on even unviable new projects infuses private capital via contractors. Subsidy for fares serves no such purpose of capital.

Also See: Delhi Metro Hikes Fares Again

Many Indian cities have functional low cost means of transport. The challenge is to improve them for increasing needs and greater reliability and comfort. Metro systems circumvent this challenge by superposing an entirely different system which does not address any of the needs of the existing low-cost systems. In fact, the ideal solution would be a synergy between Metro and these already existing systems. None of the Metro plans address this issue. Mumbai suburban railway system is a unique example where sixty-year old rolling stock technology has been adapted and perfected to run a system at extremely low cost, with practically zero accident rate and near hundred per cent punctuality. These are the classic railway systems achievements, and Indian railways professionals deserve full credit for this.

This barebones system, however, has failed miserably in developing suitable coaches and fast and safe passenger mobility facilities in stations for the punctuated high densities of urban transport. The same is true for bus systems in Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. Buses are ideal for urban transport as they can serve nooks and crannies not accessible by train. Many large cities in the world have expanded their bus fleets and kept them up to date with the latest technology. Road space usage has been rationalised through BRT corridors, and by restricting entry of private vehicles in certain areas. Indian cities have failed miserably in this regard. Worse, functional systems like BEST in Mumbai are being bled, starved and forced to die.

Class power of the rich force societies along selected alternatives. People falling off overcrowded trains and crumbling bridges, and dying in stampedes is an aspect of policy decisions made to orient urban transport infrastructure for private automobiles. Instead of devising viable solutions to solve emerging problems of public transport in cities, Indian rulers have embarked upon a path that serves the interests only of a tiny minority, and is pushing cities towards dystopia of congested roads and white elephants of little-used toll highways and Metro systems.

Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi.

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