The “high level of tolerance” of Mumbai’s residents has allowed the city’s municipal corporation to ignore their comfort – and even safety. That is what Bombay High Court Chief Justice Naresh Patil observed on Thursday, as he heard a clutch of petitions about the rising number of accidents and deaths of motorists due to pothole-ridden roads.

Later that day, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation offered an even more gruesome demonstration of its inefficiency and callousness. A pedestrian bridge leading to the Chhhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus collapsed at rush hour, killing six people and injuring more than 25.

The Bombay High Court has repeatedly warned the municipal corporation about the shoddy quality of road construction. The municipality’s disregard even for the High Court shows the deep rot that has set in in the organisation, once the pride of civic governance in India. Hours after the collapse, Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta, whose office is literally next door to the bridge, had not yet faced the media.

The bridge collapse is the latest in a series of calamities that have been heaped on ordinary Mumbaikars, for whom just walking in their neighbourhoods or commuting to work is a terrible ordeal.

Death of BEST

Few things illustrate the brutal disregard for the residents of India’s commercial capital better than the systematic manner in which the state government and municipality have undermined Mumbai’s lifeline, the BEST bus service. As the authorities build infrastructure that encourages the residents to travel by private vehicles, traffic jams have got much worse. This has made BEST bus services less dependable – and cuts into its revenues. But Mehta insists that if the BEST is to get more funds, it must become more efficient. It is a vicious cycle.

The distorted vision of mobility that Mumbai’s administrators have for the city was starkly visible last month, when the Western India Automobile Association, an organisation of car owners, celebrated its centenary in February.

The association marked the occasion with a high-decibel show and parade of sleek cars and “super bikes” in the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Ironically, ordinary people trying to use public transport to get to their offices in this glass-and-chrome business district do not have it easy at all.

Despite being located between the suburban railway stations of Kurla on the Central Railway and Bandra on Western line, bus connectivity is poor. At the Bandra end, for instance, the buses are terminated more than half a kilometre from the station, forcing commuters to trudge to their trains on a narrow, congested road. It is almost as if the authorities are deliberately mocking commuters.

On July 3, a large section of an east-west connector bridge by Andheri suburban railway station collapsed, injuring five people. One of the women injured in the accident died four days later. (Photo credit: AFP).
On July 3, a large section of an east-west connector bridge by Andheri suburban railway station collapsed, injuring five people. One of the women injured in the accident died four days later. (Photo credit: AFP).

Extravagant coastal road

Now, as a gaudy testimony to their desire to pander to the elite, the authorities have swung into action to build a coastal road that will run 29.2 km along the city’s western shore. The cost just for the 10-km south section is set to be Rs 12,700 crore – more than Rs 1,200 crore per km.

The project will cater to a mere 1.25% of the city’s population – the proportion of residents on the city’s western edge who own cars. In addition to the outrageous economic cost, there is an ugly aesthetic price: Mumbai will lose its uninterrupted view of the Arabian Sea.

Tolerant Mumbai

The pedestrian bridge that collapsed on Thursday is located right outside the stone building of the Times of India, where I worked for 36 years from 1968. Without doubt, one of the reasons I stayed at the paper for so many years was its easy accessibility by public transport: once you got to Chhattrapati Shivaji station, all you had to do was cross the road.

When I got into the Harbour Line train, I frequently found myself in the company of my editor, Darryl D’Monte, an environmental journalist who was an ardent advocate for public transport. There was no bridge in those days (it came up only in the early 1990s) nor the hot and stuffy underpass that was built later that decade. When it was first proposed, the bridge had been opposed by activists who were concerned that it would ruin the façade of the heritage station. Besides, it would make pedestrians trudge up a high flight of steps and then down again, just so motorists could travel more quickly.

The authorities had forgotten the lesson they had been taught only a couple of decades earlier. A pedestrian bridge they had built outside Churchgate station, Mumbai’s other major train terminus, had to be demolished after pedestrians opposed it for being so inconvenient.

Mumbai has been repeatedly betrayed by its administrators. As the media have reported, merely six months ago, the professionals who carried out a structural audit of the bridge that collapsed on Friday declared that it was safe and needed only minor repairs.

It is time for civil society to wake up. Mumbai residents need to prove Chief Justice Patil wrong and stop being so tolerant.

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