Let’s face it. It did not need 23 people dying on a crowded railway bridge to tell us that we face a crisis of infrastructure. The millions of commuters who travel by Mumbai’s local train network have faced this shortcoming every single day that they commute from home to office and back. The trains are packed with their human cargo like so many mobile cans of sardines. The only cause for wonder at all is that the creaking system still works, still manages to deliver the denizens of sin city and its suburbs to their vocations and then back again home. It is little wonder that the rush hours are called ‘crush hours’.
But then why has this latest incident galvanized us so much? Is it because we got to live it out in graphic detail from mobile phone footage retransmitted over the salacious news channels? Or because of the realization that must dawn for many a Mumbai resident that it was only a matter of being elsewhere, catching a train ten minutes later, opting for a taxi instead of rail that proved to be the difference between life and a suffocating death – ironically so close to the life that these passengers live every day in the mind-numbing overcrowded train compartments.
Many shades of the truth played out that day. From the opportunistic molestation of a dying lady, to the almost heretical pilferage of personal belongings, Mumbai showed some of its faces that no one wants to see. But other faces were visible too, from the people who hung on to the foothold outside the railings to help free the fallen from the human tangle, to folks who rushed the injured to hospital and to the people who lined up to give blood when the call went out. Mumbai does have a heart, only you fail to recognize it through the scars and blood.
And then of course was the call of the fallen. Who was to blame for the tragedy? After all, we all love to blame our shortcomings on someone else. Here the target was very obvious – a government that has built its reputation on bombast and bluster. It is a government that has chosen to adopt the mantle of reform, without realizing that the reform they seek is not just from a few generations of rampant corruption and opportunism, but from an entrenched mindset that defines India. So the government looks at making a name for itself from big ticket presentations – like the Bullet train announcement that was so cursed on the day of the accident. For any commoner can see the dichotomy in an approach that sees no folly in promising to spend almost 17 billion US dollars on new infrastructure when the existing one in the Nation’s financial capital is so pathetic – after all the crush on the bridge was just the result of spill from four trains unloading in tandem. But is blaming the apathetic railway ministry and by extension the prime minister justified? Tweets from the last railway minister Suresh Prabhu indicate that a new bridge had been sanctioned but no move had been made to construct it. So now we can blame a functionary, the railway general manager, who can actually lose his job because he didn’t act.
The much acclaimed spirit of Mumbai that is highlighted at times like bomb blasts, attack by Pakistani terrorists and extreme flooding is really the ability of the vast majority of working class Mumbai dwellers to move on from the scare, the hurt and the pain. Thousands have crossed the same bridge the very same evening of the tragedy, many with a silent prayer and a quiet tear for the fallen. They will continue to use the bridge, which till that day was classified by the railways as an amenity, like a water tap or a waiting bench. It took the death of 23 people for the railways to recognize that the bridge was a ‘necessity’ and hence could have some money thrown at it. When will the railways realize that if they actually modernized Mumbai’s network to a world-class grid, it would cost far less than 17 billion dollars and would actually pay back for itself many times over?
Are there any lessons we should learn from the smashed up corpses of our fallen brethren? We have ignored the thousands that die every year either falling from or being run over by trains – largely because of poor ‘amenities’ like easily accessible bridges or doors of train compartments that actually close. We are inured so much by the scarring of our daily commute that we become coarse and lack humanity – ask anyone who has mistakenly climbed into a Virar fast local to get down by Borivali. That’s when you realize that 70 years of development has bred a people who are ready to actually push someone down from a moving train, who won’t stop and let women and children move past safely, who live with an aim of somehow pushing past everyone else – just another face of the everyday Mumbai man. And in the meantime it is fortunate that we have someone rather visible to blame for our lack of humanity.