Crossing Lines to get Mumbai back on track…


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The trains are very crowded and terribly delayed,” apologised my very punctual executive assistant, “I missed 7 or 8 trains, finally managing to get into one by the skin of my teeth”. It was the day of the Western Railway tracks’ AC/DC conversion. No one knew what the fault was. Some attributed it to a crow short-circuiting the wires.

I dwelt no more on it, till that afternoon, when I received a chilling phone call. A young member of our staff, working in our Nariman Point branch, had failed to come to work and calls to his cell phone had yielded no response. While his colleagues were still trying to trace him, his parents received a call at about 3 pm, from the police, asking them to identify his phone number. When they did so, they were informed that all that remained of their son was the sim card in his crushed mobile.

A few weeks later, we lost a second team member to a similar accident. These were not careless young people, but responsible and mature individuals. They died simply because their daily commute in a jam-packed compartment, with people spilling out of open doors, proved too dangerous.

To some, the annual death toll of approximately 4,000 Mumbaikars on our suburban rail lines is a rounding error— after all, millions travel every day. To the parents and families of these young men, as indeed to the families of every person who travels on the efficient but overcrowded Suburban train network, these unnecessary deaths are symptomatic of the failure of governance in our city.

In terms of human capital, Mumbai ranks amongst the best cities in the world. Its infrastructure ranks amongst the worst. There seems to be no thought or planning in terms of meeting the basic requirements of Mumbai’s citizens.

Why is this so and how can it change? Is there a constructive way forward? I believe there is. The choices and decisions we make can help either aggravate the problems or enable solutions. At a macro level, this starts with who we choose to govern our city, state and country. Despite decrying our leaders incessantly, Mumbai’s voter turnouts leave much to be desired. If we are absent during elections, it shouldn’t surprise us that our government functions in absentia. At a micro level, our individual choices can make a big difference to our collective life. How we consume, save or waste water is one example; how we dispose, recycle, segregate or compost garbage is another.

As far as public transport is concerned, there is no doubt that policymakers need to prioritise infrastructure upgrades. In the meantime, can we, as citizens, play a part in changing Mumbai’s transport landscape? Shared below are three thoughts that I believe can help make a difference :

1) Redefine the Work Paradigm: Mumbai is no longer a manufacturing hub. The majority of our people work in the services industry. Technology today makes it possible for us to work in our own time and space while being perfectly efficient and connected. If corporates empower and enable staff to work from home and measure them on deliverables and outcomes instead of hours spent in office, we could add hours of productive time to their day, reduce the pressure on public transport and save costs in addition.

2) Be Pedestrian: Think for a moment of the thousands of commuters who exit VT and Churchgate every morning in the monsoon. After a harrowing train ride, they have to dodge potholes and traffic while struggling to keep dry. If instead, they had air-conditioned underground or elevated walkways, how much more comfortable this would be and how much more productive they’d be at work.

3) Think Flexible: In the foreseeable future, fuel prices are headed only one way—upwards. Car pools for those of us who need to drive have long been a sensible way to optimise costs. Communication technology now makes it possible to widen the pooling community across the city, making it possible for strangers to share cars effectively.

Much is said about the spirit of Mumbai. Through hell and high water, through bomb blasts and floods, Mumbai continues unflinchingly. The work ethic of our city surpasses that of any other city that I have lived or worked in. In and of itself, the fact that our children resume school and their parents go to work, despite the disasters that other cities have nightmares about, speaks volumes about both the character and courage of every Mumbaikar.

It is time that our city’s infrastructure is upgraded to match up to its spirit.

The above article was published in the July 9 2012 issue of Outlook magazine with the cover Who Killed my Mumbai and is shared with their consent.

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9 thoughts on “Crossing Lines to get Mumbai back on track…

  1. One more thought that i’d like to add in addition to these very good suggestions – have patience, respect other people as well as your city and its infrastructure.

    I say this from my experience with something similar here – the Delhi Metro – one of its jewels and also the lifeline. While the infrastructure and service is impeccable, you are left bewildered to see every body so restless and impatient. People run from and to the trains on the stations as if it is the last metro for the day! Despite a packed train, people would just want to push through the crowd and get in. Queues quickly dismantle once the train arrives – forget about the ones deboarding – just get in the train first seems to be the attitude. It becomes a struggle to get in or out of the train. Thanks to technology, the door automatically closes, otherwise people would certainly not mind hanging out of the doors! Poor security guards have a hard time taking care of the crowd. Women only compartments are a boon, otherwise no female would dare think of using the Metro. Even these are routinely used by men to get in as well as to commute, though things are much better now.

    Whats happening – you wonder. Why so much panic and impatience. The same attitude reflects in short tempers on the roads. Lets have patience and respect for each other, our brethren, our town/city and our facilities, otherwise even the best of infrastructure and facilities would not bring any peace of mind…for that’s what we all strive for.

    Regards

    • I agree. It’s an ordeal to travel in Delhi Metro at times. I can understand what Mumbaikars go through every day.
      I think it all boils down to population explosion. What do you think will happen in the Tube if the population of London is equal to Delhi? I have always believed that if we control our population and politicians, everything else will fall in line.

      • There could be both sides. Population is also our asset and that is one reason why the world looks at India / China – “emerging markets”. While population is certainly bursting, i feel the way it is scattered also matters. Why every one wants to come to the cities? Its time we lay as much emphasis on developing our villages as for our cities. Who will want to leave home in case there are ample opportunities !..and then our cities will be truly relieved. I also did a google on Japan subway system and found interesting ways they communicate with people on being well mannered… do check this link – http://inventorspot.com/articles/tokyo_metros_manner_poster_series_scolds_subway_slobs_21049

  2. Very well written ! The concept of Work from Home will definitely solve a lot of issues, most clearly prevent valuable time and energy being wasted on commuting as cattle, for hours in the local. The push has to come from trade and Industry leaders or by Law (?).

    The Car pool has a serious pre-requisit that the return time also needs to be fixed, for it to have any benefit. There is a stipulated in time in offices which employees strive to clock, but spend endless late hours in the evening ( owing to pathetic worrk culture , mindset of bosses, poor systems, actual work pressure)

    Improvement in infrastructure is definitely desirable, but who ensures that this should not end up as another shameful source of money making by the civic and politicos, Janata be damned !

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