Tragedy of apathy

The ghastly stampede on a narrow foot-overbridge at Elphinstone Road station of Mumbai during the morning peak hours on Friday, which killed at least 22 people and injured over 30 is one of the worst commuter tragedies that the metropolis has seen.

It is a shame indeed that we get wiser only when avoidable tragedies occur and slip back into complacency all too soon. The stampede occurred around 10.30 am as many commuters were standing huddled on the overcrowded overbridge to escape the sudden heavy showers, and a few tripped and fell.

An eyewitnesses was quoted as saying that commuters started panicking after somebody shouted that the bridge was collapsing and that there was a short circuit. Those in the crowd started pushing and as a consequence those in the middle of the stairs fell.

Many commuters who tried to escape through the railing got stuck. Mumbaikars said this was a tragedy just waiting to happen. With the development of mill land and central Mumbai becoming a major office hub, commuter traffic at Elphinstone, Parel and Lower Parel stations had seen a tremendous increase in recent years.

Other eyewitnesses said four trains came at the same time and due to the rain, a few commuters slipped, which led to the tragedy.

The hard reality is that these old railway stations had not been rehauled to accommodate the rising number of commuters. The foot overbridges see a daily traffic of 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh commuters, which they are ill-equipped to handle. Reports said the foot overbridge was also used as a short-cut by people going to the fish and flower markets in the area.

A muddy lane lined with garbage bins and illegal religious shrines connects the station to the roads leading to the large office complexes.

The only addition has been a pedestrian bridge at the northern end of the station which few commuters use as it goes nowhere. An extra platform is being constructed to ease the crowding but work has been exasperatingly slow.

The tragedy is indeed a chilling reminder that building basic infrastructure and higher safety standards should by far be a higher priority for the governments at the Centre and the states than grandiose schemes like bullet trains at huge cost.

Now that there is a new Railways minister at the Centre who hails from Mumbai, he must reset his priorities and infuse accountability at all levels of the railway administration. Heads must roll for the extreme callousness displayed by the Railways. The Indian Railways has seen a spate of derailments in the last few weeks.

Safety standards which were never great have gone worse. New minister Piyush Goyal must shed all complacency and get down to his task. A fact-finding committee must get to the root of the tragedy and remedial action must follow on a war footing.

         

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