Lakhs of Mumbaikars who used the Gopal Krishna Gokhale bridge connecting the eastern and western parts of Andheri, probably Mumbai’s most congested suburb, and beyond have been stuck for hours in traffic gridlock on alternative routes after it was closed on Monday. A test found the bridge to be in a stressed and dangerous condition. Other Mumbaikars hope the situation does not arise in their areas, that the bridges they use are safer, and that alternative routes do not ruin a few hours of their lives every day.
We must pardon the rest of India for asking, “Why are you making a song and dance about one bridge?” because they know not what they question. Mumbai moves despite – not thanks to – the creaky, crumbling, people-unfriendly infrastructure and the challenges it presents daily to its millions. Just how creaky it is can be seen in the Gokhale bridge saga. A section collapsed in July 2018, repairs were undertaken but not completed, and a flyover was sought to be built nearby and merged into it. This construction impeded traffic movement in the last three years. Now it transpires that the bridge itself is dangerous for use, so it has been closed for all traffic, but the two agencies involved – the BMC and Western Railway, over which a portion of the bridge passes – cannot decide who should demolish it.
Nearly a week after the decision to close the bridge – who knows how many of us risked our lives using it before it was certified hazardous – there is no clarity on which authority will demolish it and how the repair or reconstruction will pan out. To ease the gridlock, the BMC is suddenly filling potholes on alternative routes and removing hawkers (are we allowed an eye-roll?). We have been repeatedly assured that two lanes will be reopened for traffic by May next year and two more by September, but how will this come to pass when the BMC and the railway are locked in a tug-of-war over its demolition? The depth of the despair that Mumbaikars feel over a single broken bridge is captured in this: residents of Andheri started an online petition asking the Indian Army to take over the demolition-repair work so that it could be done “on a war footing”.
Three issues are written on the wall of that crumbling bridge: the haphazardness and pathetic state of infrastructure, the multiplicity of agencies in charge of it, and their appalling lack of accountability to Mumbaikars. Indeed, these have been pondered upon in countless seminars, repeatedly written or spoken about by a concerned few; yet, they need to be aired occasionally, in the hope that the authorities are nudged into action – some action.
It is clearly unsustainable for the city to have so many agencies and authorities – more than a dozen at last count – plan, construct and operate multimodal infrastructure, each working in its limited framework and quibbling over jurisdictional issues. A road in the MIDC area of Andheri, near the multi-crore generating hub of SEEPZ, has dangerous uneven surfaces and potholes the size of craters only because the BMC and MIDC are content to play the classic blame-game even as thousands risk their lives and spinal columns daily. This theme repeats itself in countless areas of the city.
It does not matter to Mumbaikars whose jurisdiction ends or begins where; what matters is if the agencies together – individually and collectively – can reorient the focus of their work from singular projects to the convenience and safety of people who use the infrastructure. Make users your focus, gentlemen (yes, planners and managers are mostly men, that’s why we are urging that gender is made a factor in urban planning). This will also help understand accountability: who is responsible for what and therefore can be corralled till satisfactory work is carried out.
Let’s go over the laundry list – badly laid and potholed roads, shoulders of roads that do not merge, pavements which do not exist in most parts of the city or are occupied by not only hawkers but also government property, congested and narrowed access to railway stations, chaos outside every station that makes seamless commuting look like a dream, overcrowding at railway stations and railway bridges or escalators that leads to a near-stampede every other minute during peak hours, public thoroughfares and concourses blocked by public and private things, bus stops that are not marked or lit properly, semi-private transport like rickshaws and taxis that work to their own unwritten rules, and all of this creaking infrastructure planned and designed for able-bodied men without consideration for other genders or children, and ignoring the city’s environmental framework.
This week, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation approached the Supreme Court for permission to cut 84 more trees in the Aarey forest, after clearing it of more than 2,140 for the Metro 3 car shed. The grand Coastal Road is being built in the sea where large tracts of land are being created – not reclaimed, because we are not taking it back from the sea – as real estate while the thousands of crores spent on that road for a small section of Mumbai’s motorists could have financed large public transport projects or upgraded the ailing BEST service which remains a lifeline for millions, and Gokhale bridge. Like several bridges that serve as key connectors, this, too, was built in an era when traffic projections were not as high. It took real-time stresses and needed repairs, but surely a city like Mumbai can address this without making commutes a living hell for Mumbaikars.
Mumbai, the city with millions always on the move, depends on every inch of its creaking infrastructure to function in the clockwork manner it is admired for; the new infrastructure does not necessarily replace or upgrade the old. There is also no doubt at all now, when compared to major Indian metros or even on its own, Mumbai has been short-changed in the spread and quality of infrastructure. Also, there is nothing called the “Mumbai spirit” which makes people here rise after a knock or go through the grind in the face of extreme conditions; it is merely that the alternative is a greater loss.
All the governments – at the Centre, in the state and the local municipal corporation – are responsible for the city’s pathetic state. Let no one entity feel superior to another. In their desire to control and corner parts of the city through the infrastructure they develop, they have collectively turned Mumbai into an obstacle course for the millions who live and work here. Let the BMC be in charge of every piece of the city’s jigsaw, and let every project go through its corridors. It is, after all, the authority closest to and most approachable for Mumbaikars. But will the State Government even entertain the thought of yielding control when the high point of urban governance has been the Chief Minister’s war room in the last few years? Don’t bet on it.
Smruti Koppikar, journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender and media. She is founder editor of ‘Question of Cities’