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Elphinstone stampede: A question of responsibility

Mumbai cannot cope, let alone be true to its dreams, unless the confusion of multiple authorities is sorted out

On September 29, soon after the horrific stampede at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road railway bridge, that led to the death of 23 people, two groups of policemen came to the accident spot. One was from Mumbai Police, and the other represented the Government Railway Police (GRP). Instead of coordinating their investigation effort, the two groups argued — over jurisdiction.

Whose call?

As this newspaper reported, “GRP personnel said that while the FOB (foot overbridge) was from the railway station, it was built on BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) land and so it was the responsibility of the city police. Mumbai Police personnel, on the other hand, said that since the bridge was used by railway passengers, the responsibility lay with the railway police only. Personnel from both forces were seen taking measurements on the bridge to decide the area of jurisdiction.”

Technically, Mumbai Police are responsible for preventing and detecting crime within city limits. The GRP is a police organisation under the State government in all States, and responsible for the prevention and detection of crime on railway property, including in trains. It liaises with local police forces where railway lines and stations are located.

The jurisdiction incident is symptomatic of all that is wrong with Mumbai’s infrastructure — there are far too many agencies, and no one is willing to take responsibility when a tragedy takes place.

To be sure, accountability and multiplicity of agencies is just one of the many issues that dog Mumbai’s development, planned and unplanned. One could argue that this is the case with pretty much any city in India, and the quarrel over jurisdiction, shameful as it is, could have taken place anywhere in the country.

 

Not just any other city

But Mumbai is unique primarily because of its status among India’s mega cities. It is easily the nation’s commercial hub, is home to more than 20 million people in its extended Mumbai Metropolitan Region, and it is far more diverse in its cultural inclusion than most other metros. Put simply, India needs Mumbai to prosper — yet the city has been struggling to maintain its civic stride for a long while now.

It aims to be included among the world’s leading cities, and yet, Mumbai does not even have the most conducive environment for businesses or people to thrive. Its public transport, though widespread and connected, is well beyond saturation point (the Elphinstone stampede was an calamity waiting to happen in a rail network that ferries nearly eight million passengers daily); the city’s roads make the moon’s surface look like a German autobahn; commercial rentals are higher than in Los Angeles, forcing entrepreneurs to set up businesses elsewhere; Internet connectivity, so vital for any city’s progress, has improved over the years but it is nowhere near world standards. Even its Development Plan 2034, a municipal vision statement to transform Mumbai into a “global city”, betrays so many logistical inefficiencies and unrealistic ambitions that it underwent several revisions since 2014. Almost all of the projects are yet to take off after it was cleared by the BMC in August this year, because the Maharashtra government is yet to approve it.

 

There could be several explanations for Mumbai’s faltering and stuttering growth over the last three or four decades, but the primary reason is not too difficult to isolate: a lack of political will. Although Mumbai is Maharashtra’s capital, much of the city’s development discourse has gone through various iterations on who should be the city’s boss.

In most cities around the world, it is the mayor. In Mumbai, the mayor has been reduced to a figurehead, while the real powers lie with the municipal commissioner, who is appointed by the State government. The BMC commissioner is, in effect, Mumbai’s CEO. The powerful standing committee, comprising elected representatives, can frame policies, draft bye-laws, and sanction the city’s budget. But the person to oversee and implement everything is the commissioner. Besides, a large majority of the State’s elected legislators visit Mumbai only during legislative assembly and council sessions, and have no stake in the city’s progress.

As a direct and indirect result of this ambiguity, much like the jurisdiction embarrassment after the stampede, accountability for the city’s roads too is diffuse. There are at least five agencies that handle roads in Mumbai — the BMC, the State Public Works Department, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, and in some cases even the Slum Rehabilitation Authority.

Civic apathy

It is another matter that Mumbaikars themselves are so self-absorbed in their day-to-day struggle that they find holding politicians accountable a lost cause. Less than half the city’s voters turn up at polling booths during the General and State elections, and the voting percentage during municipal polls is even more abysmal. After the terror attack on the city on November 26, 2008, there were widespread calls for a change of guard in the State. Yet, less than 45% of Mumbai’s voters turned up on election day in 2009. It is a vicious cycle of apathy and indifference that is seemingly impossible to cut through. Rent-seeking, therefore, continues unabated without citizens questioning it, and in many cases, actively participating in it.

There are clichéd terms that the city uses to bring out the helpful nature of its inhabitants when a catastrophe strikes. The most abused one is “the spirit of Mumbai”. This spirit, a matter of pride earlier, has become the city’s shame because it is a mere fig leaf for citizens’ lack of involvement in the political process and their utter disregard for holding public servants accountable. It is, of course, true that the city survives, albeit on the brink, mostly due to the enterprise of its individual residents and their sheer capacity for resilience amidst under par services. As a matter of fact, Mumbai carries on not because of political and bureaucratic support, but in spite of it.

However, a city that aspires to be be true to its people, let alone be world class, cannot survive on spirit alone; it will eventually break down. That breaking point is nearing fast, and the sooner Maharashtra’s and Delhi’s lawmakers wake up to it, the better.

It is doable

It is not that Mumbai’s problems are insurmountable. Despite its lack of geographical space, the city has the capacity to provide for public services that are often taken for granted in both developing and developed countries. There are right-thinking and forward-looking organisations that have come forward with feasible plans to assist the authorities to make Mumbai a liveable place.

But then we go back to the old question of who will implement these plans and who will be held accountable. It is this question that needs to be answered first. The rest will fall in line.

sachin.kalbag@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 6:18:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/elphinstone-stampede-a-question-of-responsibility/article19781572.ece

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