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When Cattle-Packed Truck Makes Mumbai Suburban Train Travellers Jealous

Every passenger will have at least a couple of near-death experiences of either hanging on the foot-board by one finger, slipping on to a platform, getting pushed out of a train, misjudging the speed of an incoming train and almost hitting himself/herself on the head, getting choked on a dupatta in a ladies compartment, fainting on a bridge full of people and so on…

When Cattle-Packed Truck Makes Mumbai Suburban Train Travellers Jealous
| Apoorv Salkade/Outlookindia
When Cattle-Packed Truck Makes Mumbai Suburban Train Travellers Jealous
outlookindia.com
2017-10-10T14:48:30+05:30

The time is 7.10 am at Ambernath station. The platform is full. It is three minutes to the 713 am fast train from Karjat that will take 23-year-old Akanksha to Ghatkopar. She has to be on dot, alert, ready to spring into action to get a standing spot. If she misses or if the train is late by more than 5 minutes everything onwards can go haywire. After getting off at Ghatkopar an hour later, she hurtles towards Mumbai Metro and takes the Metro to Azadnagar, Andheri (West). Every minute counts. The journey gets infinitely better on the metro because of passenger queues, comparatively fewer people and yes, air-conditioning. She has to reach office by 9 am, which she manages only in the nick of time, if all goes well.   

Switch to 12 hours later – after a full day’s work. Akanksha is in her usual combat mode yet again. This time at Ghatkopar station, after having taken the metro from Azadnagar, she is eagerly waiting for 7.25 pm Karjat train, which she has to catch before it halts at the station. She tries her best to be the first person to catch hold of the bar and swing in. After standing for another hour or more, and balancing her bag squeezed between her arms, she reaches Ambernath, to reach home by 9 pm at the earliest. And this is a good day. Bad days can easily stretch from 14 hours to 16 hours.

At these precise minutes and at least for a couple of hours before or after, there are lakhs of Mumbaikars attempting these very adventures at various stations on central, western railway, collectively nursing palpitating hearts and frayed nerves and a helpless desperation to get to the damn workplace before you are marked late for the third time in a month.

"I can’t take any train after the 7.13 am train because they get more crowded by the minute. It used to be worse when I had to go to Dadar to change to Western line to go Goregaon. If I don’t take the trains that are planned, it adds much more time and stress to the travel. I remember when I started working I used to leave five to six trains because I couldn’t get in. That just doesn’t work. So there is no option but to catch a running train. After being out from 7 am, I can’t wait for peak hour to get over and leave after 8 pm from office and reach home beyond 10 pm," says Akanksha wistfully.

The funny thing about living in Mumbai and its suburbs is that wherever you are and wherever you have to reach for work every single day, it will take over an hour no matter what. Take the case of Vinayak Kharat. While Akanksha lives far from work, Vinayak is reativelly much closer. But the firefighting is just as bad.

Vinayak Kharat jolts himself out of his half-complete sleep at 645 am to make sure he is out of the house by 745 am. A resident of Mira Road, a suburb that has grown manifold in population density only in the past few years, he takes an autorickshaw to Borivali station, which is two railway stations and 20 minutes away and costs about Rs 90, because he cannot get into any local train at Mira Road at that time. He pushes his way out of a packed train at Andheri, to go his office at Marol, thankfully connected by the Metro. The office timing is a strict 930 am to 730 pm. However, he has to wait till 825 pm for a train that he can board and will take him to Mira Road. At Mira Road, he often ends up calling his younger brother to pick him up on the bike or else spend more time and energy in trying to get an auto. He hasn’t gone to bed before 130 am in years. He is lucky that he doesn’t have to carry a laptop on daily basis.

"Every day I spend extra money on an expensive auto ride simply because I cannot get into a train and worse still, reach the door on the other side to get off at Andheri. One has to be always alert and quick to be able to get in, get out and complete the journey. I have been traveling like this for years for my education and work and I have neglected my health completely. And that’s just the way it is. This is not human, in fact it is worse than animal-like. Even chickens and hens are transported in a better way to the slaughter shops."

Every commuter among the 70 lakh, who are transported on Mumbai’s suburban rail network aka its life-line from their homes to work places, will have multiple shocking incidents to narrate and at least a couple of near-death experiences of either hanging on the foot-board by one finger, slipping on to a platform, getting pushed out of a train, misjudging the speed of an incoming train and almost hitting himself/herself on the head, getting choked on a dupatta in a ladies compartment, fainting on a bridge full of people and so on…

Over the years this life line of Mumbai, and it is undoubtedly so simply because no other means of transport caters to this distance and this much crowd, has claimed more lives than terror attacks or natural disasters in the city – an average of nine per day. However, the city and its citizens react briefly when something as tragic as the Elphinstone Road stampede, viral video of a man falling off a crowded train or a young girl losing her hands after falling in the gap between a platform and the train, happens and shakes their dulled conscience. Or when trains get inordinately delayed for days and angry passengers resort to stone pelting and beating the motormen up, the ultimate eruption of a dormant and resilient Mumbaikar.

The more one talks to commuters and authorities, the feeling and conviction that this is a mess that cannot sort itself out gets stronger. While the examples described above are relatively younger, energetic and well-earning members of new India, there are countless more, who have braved such journeys for over 20 years of service in a modest paying job and relied on trains and public transport outside of it too.

A quick look at Usha Paradkar’s life of 59 years, of which she worked 36 years at Sion Hospital as a nurse, of which she spent a minimum of four hours every single day commuting from Badlapur to Sion, should give an idea of what is at stake. “One accepts it as one goes on working but there is no personal or family life. There were times when I had to jump from the train or I have crossed the railway tracks to catch a train but in that moment you are just trying to get to work. Those days we didn’t have mobile phones or anything and it is that much harder for women because of families waiting back home and other women-specific problems.” She doesn’t want to travel by train anymore and has avoided it completely since her retirement last year.

Several residents from Dombivli have been going two stations back to Kalyan to catch a train that takes him to CSMT (formerly CST, VT). This is a common practice on both the lines, where passengers travel backwards to some main station such as Virar, Bhyander, Kalyan or Thane to get place to sit for the onward southbound journey. It would add another 30-45 minutes to your travel. 

The intangible cost paid by citizens, when they are not just travelling, but struggling to travel and cope, is a matter of separate study. For example, traveling for two hours in an air-conditioned car, while sipping on water and listening to music and reading the day’s paper is infinitely different from spending every minute of those two hours on one foot or the other, running, jumping, screaming and sweating and holding on to your dear life.  

“We look at cities on three counts – living, which refers to living conditions such as access to open spaces, schools, hospitals etc, working, which refers amenities and opportunities related to work, and moving, which is about how do people transport themselves from living to working. Honestly speaking, we are struggling on all three counts in Mumbai. Each of this is fraught with serious issues,” says Pankaj Joshi, director Urban Design Research Institute.

Psychiatrist Dr. Harish Shetty wrote about the state of commuters’ mindset on his blog after 23 people died. He says, “… But in the din what has slipped from the minds of every one was that the city has been perpetually in a state of a chronic disaster syndrome. With disasters such as building collapses, floods, murders, suicides and terrorist attacks the mumbaikars are today extremely hyper-vigilant and hyper-aroused. From 1993 onwards the situation has worsened. A burgeoning city tearing from all sides needs urgent attention failing which many more such tragedies are waiting to happen…

Approximately 20 odd women also died after they jumped out of a running train from the ladies compartment in 1993 in Mumbai. They were run over by a running train on the adjacent track. Somebody said there was smoke in the compartment that was interpreted as a bomb about to explode. This followed after several days of the bomb blasts at multiple locations in the city by terrorists in 1993. Those who died had the story of the bomb blasts in their minds, the first of its kind that hit Mumbai. Startle, hypervigilance and a hyperaroused state killed them. In normal circumstances they would not have lost their judgment and jumped. 

… Yesterday at Elphinstone Bridge the same thing happened. It thundered and rained and the bridge was full of people. The roaring noise and probably someone uttered that the bridge was collapsing and the mayhem followed. Fresh after the recent floods, building collapses, murders, suicides, job losses, escalating prices and burdened by the angst of globalization the rational judgment collapsed. The lower middle class and the middle class in Mumbai travel in trains like animals. Completely dehumanized and numbed they run to make their two ends meet. The level of stress is high, rage is visible and the minds have an ultra short fuse.”

What the planning experts and psychiatrists feel is echoed by passengers and passenger associations. “For years and years it has been accepted that this is how people travel. It’s not about one incident. Every day people are struggling – sometimes the indicators are not working, sometimes the announcements are off, trains change platforms last minute making people scurry on foot over bridges. The authorities are trying to add services and upgrade but it is far from sufficient and everything is delayed,” says Kailash Verma, general secretary of the Mumbai Rail Pravasi Sangh. “After 2006-2007, nine foot over bridges were sanctioned. Still three are remaining. But somehow when something like this happens passengers are expected to show patience. That’s just unfair.”

Ask Girish who travels from Dombivli to Goregaon, an otherwise hellish commute relatively eased by office bus pick up from Thane or Kanjumarg. However, getting down at intermittent stations is a different battle altogether, like at Elphinstone Road.

"No matter where I get off, the bridges are a problem during peak hours. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to go from one platform to the other or the exit. These stations and amenities are meant for far lesser crowds. Just two weeks ago it took me 20 minutes at Goregaon FOB when it was raining and it was fully blocked.” He also adds that there is no time to study for further exams and prepare for further plans in career, let alone rest.  

However, there is no other cheaper or faster mode of transport for these citizens. At world’s cheapest fares and comprehensively faster than most arterial roads, highways, there is little choice for an average resident who is struggling to make ends meet. Increased jobs at different pockets in Mumbai such as the Bandra Kurla Complex, Malad, Chandivali, Powai. Moreover, residential concentration has shifted further north, because of unaffordable housing closer to work. (figures awaited)

“Travel patterns have undergone major changes on Western line because of shifting of office spaces and residential areas between Borivali and Virar. For example passenger traffic as increased at the three stations near the mill lands such as Elphinstone Road, Lower Parel and Mahalaxmi. There are plans to remodel the Parel yard and create space for more bridges but we also need a clear block of time for engineers to work. They don’t get more than three hours at night. Often we can’t bring cranes because the approach is so narrow. We are also running 15-car trains but it’s not sufficient because there are that many people using only the train,” says Ravindra Bhaker, Chief Public Relations Officer, Western Railway.

Not to mention the multiple agencies and government and civic bodies that should be involved or are responsible for various projects. For example, the connecting bridge between Elphinstone and Parel will be built by central and western railways – half and half. Also there is little understanding of passenger behavior in terms of access to transport such as share autos, taxis, bus stops and proximity to work places once people leave the station. At 9 am in the morning, no commuter will take an empty FOB which 400 metres away from the bus stop or taxi stand, which means unless further linkages are established, the efficacy will not be optimum.   

While there may be some truth in the saturation problem of the railways, the feeling that small measures are not taken to make travel bearable is palpable among commuters.

“So many small measures can be done. There are hawkers on all the bridges and subways. If they are providing wi-fi can they not alert citizens if there is a problem? The steps and tiles on sky walks and bridges come off,” says Sharma. “There is no shade on platforms – in rains commuters huddle under one patch at so many stations. None of these things require crores of rupees. People are only expecting a half-decent, safe travel, even if it is standing,” says another commuter.   

That ties up with research suggesting how little people of Mumbai expect from authorities. “When UDRI spoke to people during drafts of development plans were in process, they found that all the people wanted “is a place to stand” in trains, people also did not demand 24 hours water supply at homes, all they wanted was “one hour at the same time every day,” says Joshi who calls Mumbai a dysfunctional city. And it has perhaps been so for several years but the increased number of tragic accidents is finally being noticed.  

There is a well-known fable of a frog that is thrown into hot water jumps out but the one that is kept in normal water and the temperature is increased gradually, it remains inside and can no longer jump and dies. Surely, the city falls under the latter situation but what does a frog that knows there is nowhere to jump, do? Does it then offer a different ‘moral of the story’ for the rest of the people and cities to learn from?

However, none of this matters when grogged out bodies drag themselves at break-neck speed to catch the 7.13 am8.25 am,6.37 am trains, with a hurried, desperate prayer  - let not anyone pull the chain, let not anyone fall on the tracks, let the signal and over-head wires work - and it’s yet another glorious day in the lives of 70 lakh Mumbaikars.

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