It was an accident waiting to happen. That was the conclusion of commuters at Prabhadevi and Parel stations in Central Mumbai, where 22 people died and 39 were injured on Friday morning in a stampede on a packed foot overbridge connecting the two stations.

“The bridge is very small and regularly there is this much crowd,” said Akash Kotecha, a lawyer who was on the bridge when the stampede happened. “The bridge even shakes when a train passes from below.”

The precipitating factor for Friday’s stampede seems to have been a sudden burst of rain. Due to delays caused by the rain, four trains arrived at the two stations at the same time, increasing the number of people on the bridge. People at the foot of the bridge hesitated to step out into the rain, compacting the crowd behind them. Someone carrying a huge package on his head tripped, Kotecha said, pushing those ahead of him and causing a stampede as people scrambled to get off the bridge. Some even jumped off.

Injured commuters were taken to KEM Hospital in Parel, where railway minister Piyush Goyal, who was already in Mumbai for a function, later visited. Goyal has announced a compensation of Rs five lakh to the families of the dead and Rs one lakh to the injured.

Slippers and shoes discarded in the stampede at Prabhadevi. Image credit: Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan

What caused the crush?

Mumbai’s three railway lines – Western, Central and Harbour – converge only at a few stations. Passengers can switch between lines only at junctions such as Dadar, Kurla or Wadala Road. In South and Central Mumbai, which are at the narrower end of the city’s peninsula, some stations on different lines are so close to each other that commuters can walk across via a connecting bridge.

The stampede occurred on a five-metre-wide and 32-metre-long bridge connecting Parel station on the Central line to Elphinstone Road station on the Western line. This bridge also happens to the only one at Parel that opens on the western side into dense office clusters that have rapidly replaced defunct textile mills in the last 15 years.

Elphinstone Road and Parel each served between 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh commuters daily, according to a Hindustan Times report in December 2015.

The foot overbridge where the stampede took place.

When Mumbai’s mill districts began to become office districts dominated by glass and steel skyscrapers, the stress on Lower Parel and Elphinstone Road stations on the Western line and Currey Road and Parel on the Central line increased dramatically.

Sudhir Badami, a transport expert and long-time proponent of setting up a Bus Rapid Transport System in Mumbai, noted that the bridge connecting Prabhadevi and Parel now serves an office area whose workers do not live in the same neighbourhood, unlike the mill workers they replaced.

This bridge is usually packed for a three-hour rush period in the morning and evening, as commuters have been saying for years.

The Western Railway built a new foot overbridge at Parel to reduce passenger density in February 2016. This, as one cartoonist pointed out, is mostly empty, simply because the bridge opens out only on the east end, instead of the west, where most commuters want to go.

Ketan Goradia, a privately employed civil engineer who has created a transport plan that he claims will increase the railway system’s carrying capacity by 750%, agreed.

“The population of the island city until Mahim has decreased,” he pointed out. “But a central business district has been created between Lower Parel and Elphinstone Road. Because of that, a lot of offices have come up which do not have any transport connectivity other than the trains.”

Who is responsible?

According to Badami, the number of people who die while commuting each year has come down from 4,000 to 3,600, largely because railway lines have been fenced on either side, bringing down the number of people who cross tracks. “That’s only a 10% reduction,” Badami said.

But because trains are overcrowded, the foot overbridges and the staircases are also overcrowded, he said.

There are 109 foot over bridges and 11 subways for 28 stations between Churchgate and Virar, working out to an average of four for each station. But as the case of Prabhadevi shows, not all of these bridges are particularly useful. Some bridges, for instance, exit only on one side of the station, or do not extend to all the platforms of the stations.

The onus for easing this overcrowding lies not on the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai or even on the Maharashtra state government. Mumbai’s suburban railways are controlled by the railway ministry in Delhi, which has the sole authority to sanction funds for building new bridges or strengthening existing ones, paving or raising the height of platforms and funding new trains.

The Western Railways in a statement issued Friday evening said, “There is no dearth of funds for safety-related works. A new 12-metre long foot over bridge at the north end parallel to this bridge has already been sanctioned connecting Western Railway and Central Railway along with East-West connectivity.”

Yet Arvind Sawant, Shiv Sena Member of Parliament for Mumbai South, got no reply for more than a year after he wrote to the central railway ministry in December 2014 asking for the bridge to be widened.

Suresh Prabhu, railway minister at the time, finally replied in February 2016:

 “Most of the requests which are received reflect the genuine demands of the people and it is always our endeavour to agree to as many requests as possible. However, sometimes due to the paucity of finances, operational constraints or other compelling circumstances, agreeing to the request may not be possible.”  

The new bridge, Prabhu had said, was “under positive consideration”. According to the Western Railways, this is now under tender, though it has not given a date of completion for the tender.

But as Goradia pointed out, a large part of the delays in implementing measures to make daily commutes less deadly is because the management of the trains does not lie with the city.

“It is not the case anywhere in the world that the local transport network is handed to the central government,” Goradia said. “The Delhi Metro is handled by the Delhi government, the Tokyo metro by Tokyo’s municipal corporation. Local governments everywhere handle the transport of a city, except in Mumbai.”

A large banner at the Western Railways headquarters in Churchgate promises commuters "Gen-next station buildings", including new foot over bridges and subways between Churchgate and Virar. Image credit: Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan