|The fire gutted a signal cabin at Kurla railway station on April 18, affecting the electric and signal cabling network and disrupting the railway traffic
Great civilisations settle and flourish on the banks of great rivers. In Mumbai, civilisations settled on the banks of the railway line. Great swathes of humanity settle and dwell within one rickshaw fare from the local station. However, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet. Or rather trying to cross from east to west on any bridge across the railway line is possible only after an unimaginable traffic orgy.
Indian Railways celebrated its birthday on April 16 this week. On that day in 1853, the first passenger rail link was established between Boribunder and Thane. Thus began the division of this island city into east and west suburbs. Ever since then, train travel has been an inseparable and inalienable part of Mumbai’s life. The north-south link eventually extended almost hundred kilometers from the southern tip to the northern tip, but the mental distance between east and west is as wide as it was a century ago.
Trains ferry six million passengers daily in the city, accounting for almost half the daily passenger traffic across the nation. But the city does not get even one per cent of the annual budget from the Union Railway Minister. Hence, the upgradation of signalling systems, safety features, lengthening of platforms, better ticket windows and displays, is a painstakingly slow process, depending on the trickle of funds that flow from Delhi.
Mumbai supposedly has an autonomous Railway Vikas Corporation, but that corporation has no funds to call its own. It can only do projects if funded by the World Bank or some external agency. Why can’t the MRVC simply usurp all the passenger fares collected on the local trains in Mumbai?
That would surely lead to adequate funds for all its infrastructure upgrades. That’s too heretical a thought. Such a reform probably needs the Parliament’s nod, if not a brand new Constituent Assembly!
In the meantime, expansion and modernisation proceeds at snail’s pace. The process of four tracking, and eventual six tracking (to separate long distance trains from local trains) took several decades. The Kurla fire was probably preventable if more funds had been spent in crisis prevention, or crisis preparedness. The most recent example of delay is the implementation of the Churchgate-Dahanu service. This was supposed to have commenced in 2007. The explosion of commuter colonies in western suburbs, especially in the Vasai-Virar belt made this service imperative a decade ago. It got initiated only after a public interest litigation was filed in the High Court. The existence of this link has now become a life and death issue for railway commuters. There is still no north-bound service originating or terminating in Bandra, Andheri or Borivali.
Railway reform in Mumbai is possible in several small steps that can lead to large gains. But even these small steps require funds, and autonomy. Larger scale reform needs ideas, and yes, autonomy to execute those ideas. For instance, why can’t offices reside in buildings atop railway stations, a la Vashi or Belapur? Allowing for multi-storey buildings to come up right above railway platforms can ease commuting, and also earn revenue. After all, in Mumbai, every cubic inch of space is valued like gold. And this would be an easy way of creating office space out of thin air above railway tracks.
They say the trains carry not just daily passengers, but also livelihoods and dreams. They create communities, not just of card players, bhajan singers or knitting and vegetable cleaning. They create social capital. Just ask Delhi. ‘Life in a Metro’ has a different meaning in Delhi. But in Mumbai this week of railway’s anniversary, life turned to death for three of its loyal commuters. Let’s hope their death leads to more safety and dignity to the surviving commuters.
• Ambedkar the leader
Dr Ambedkar was a leader with foresight. He was the right person to draft our constitution. He knew the dangers of caste-based reservation, the dangers that we are suffering from now. Sadly, people from the backward castes idolise him
without looking at the lessons he left behind for them so that they can be
self-reliant. To me, reservation is just a crutch for the backward castes and a
carrot that’s dangled by the political parties for their own nefarious interests. I think it’s high time people took lessons from Dr Ambedkar’s ideology and moved on in life.
– Rohit Sonawane