By Mahesh Vijapurkar

The stampede on the foot overbridge (FOB) at Elphinstone, Mumbai, taking 23 lives bears testimony to a cart-before-the-horse syndrome of planning and management.Emergence of a new business district on defunct textile mills was bound to generate higher footfalls at the closest stations – Lower Parel and Elphinstone.

But it occurred to none except the users is significant.

That the Mumbaikars are uncomplaining, non-demanding, because they are caught up in the struggle for their livelihoods and are used to mismanagement inn every sector, including in the fact that they are used to over-crowding, is no excuse for not resolving impending crisis, or creating situations where a crisis could develop.

The recycling of the mill lands under a government policy and municipal laws has been on for two decades and the load-bearing capacity of the bridge had been reached over a decade ago but a wider FOB was contemplated only in 2015. Users had sensed the likelihood of a disaster much before the authorities did.

The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai could well have controlled the pace of the extraordinary growth of real estate on the mill lands and fine-tuning the facilities for approach and exit from the emerging new business district is unclear. The mill-owners, the builder-developer lobby, the babudom as well as political interests spurred the rapid land recycling.

The Railways which saw the increasing footfalls at the stations could have started planning. Apparently, it was blind to it, and the two stations is a serious disconnect between the two major organisations. Civic officials have now said, as per latest reports, that the railways had been paid a decade ago for a bridge at Kurla, another crowded station, but it was yet to come up.

Suddenly, the Railways have woken up and a slew of facilities, for long required, have been planned. Decision-making has been devolved to lower levels, and timelines set. Big infrastructure projects like elevated tracks have been reprioritised for later so the focus could remain on facilities. The Rip Van Winkle has woken up, but one does not know if he would yawn in the middle.

No doubt efforts to provide more trains, more carrying-capacity on the local system is always underway, but even the basics materialise only when the courts order it. For instance, the gap between the platforms and the floors of the coaches would not have been attended to without a judicial intervention. One sees platforms extended to add more coaches to trains and come monsoon, they are without the roof.

All para-statist institutions lack the imagination to begin planning for contingencies of demand growth. The very idea that in a country like ours demand overtakes the supply sooner than you can say Jack Robinson is entirely lost to planners and managers. Even new airports are planned only when the old ones are saturated. Red tape and sloth, and the people’s willingness to bear the inadequacies with a forced grin is what saves the culprits’ sloth.

Haven’t we seen farm lands adjoining smaller but expanding towns being parcelled as plots for house constructions, the place looking like a sea of white tombstones? The civic bodies come in ever so lethargically with their inadequate services – road, water, sanitation. Why are permissions given to build when facilities cannot be provided? Or delayed till they are?

The Lower Parel – Elphinstone area is not an isolated example. Old squat or low-rise buildings, decrepit, on narrow roads – adequate, of course when planned and built a century ago – are allowed to be redeveloped into skyscrapers but the civic facilities’ supply is not enhanced.The same roads, the same water pipelines and drains are supposed to support the increased demand.