“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.