CST Bridge Collapse: How Many More Disasters Before Mumbai Stops Saying, “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro”?

Social Commentary

CST Bridge Collapse: How Many More Disasters Before Mumbai Stops Saying, “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro”?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Aweekday noon outside Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminus is usually a scene of chaos – office-goers, buses, hawkers, and cars merge into a gleeful cacophony that stays unbroken until midnight. On Friday, however, a dead hush pervaded the DN Road stretch where the stench of tragedy still hung from the skeleton of the foot overbridge that collapsed on Thursday evening. At peak hour. When the concrete slabs gave way under the feet of pedestrians who continue to trust in the city’s infrastructure and killed six and injured more than 30.

A few hundred metres away, the statue of Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the visionaries who built Bombay, appears to be turning its back on the scene of the crime. For crime it is, although the criminals will play the blame game for some time to come, until the indifferent Mumbaikar forgets it all. Once again.

Once, this very bridge was made notorious by Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab who wreaked havoc over the city on November 26, 2008. Notoriety returned to the “Kasab bridge” on Thursday. This time however, the perpetrator was the enemy within.

Jaane bhi do yaaro!

Elphinstone bridge accident, September 2017. Andheri bridge collapse, July 2018. And now the CST foot overbridge collapse. Each incident is an eerie reminder of Kundan Shah’s cult classic made in 1983, in which colluding builders, politicians, and civic authorities turned the city’s infrastructure into a personal fiefdom at the cost of the tax-paying citizen. Thirty-six years on, nothing has changed. Except for the population of the city that keeps growing.

Getty Images

The city’s railway stations continue to heave at the seams every hour of the day. Shiny skywalks that hardly anyone uses have cropped up like unwanted creepers along the trunks of the stations, while the older pedestrian bridges groan under the combined weight of office-goers, students, and daily-wagers, without any fortifications.

Security forces are now regularly deployed to regulate traffic at peak hours at stations like Kurla, Bandra, and Parel – once ranked lower than Dadar, Churchgate, and CST in terms of passenger traffic. The trains, platforms, and bridges leave not an inch to spare with commuters jostling, elbowing, and at times, trampling their way to catch the 7.33 pm Virar fast. The city’s planners have allowed for huge commerce hubs around these stations but have left the transport infrastructure that caters to the working population here to fend for itself.  

Multiple factors have been at work here over several decades: For the last 40 years, the city “has been upgrading”, although that tag has been usurped only recently by the Metro. First, it was the concretisation of the roads in the late ’80s that took a toll on road traffic for years, then it was the construction of the several flyovers across the city. But the spirited Mumbaikar, immune to everything, weathered it all. Phase II of the Metro does not faze the citizen either, and the drill of the JCBs is apparently only pleasant background music on the two-hour drive to work from Andheri to Bandra.

The Mumbaikar will continue to pay some of the highest civic taxes in the country even as the BMC dithers over making walkable footpaths.

Slowly, very slowly, the city’s transport fabric has been tearing, thread by thread, and in the spirit of being a true Mumbaikar, we haven’t even noticed. We haven’t noticed that the slow erosion of the BEST bus service (over 900 buses withdrawn, 88 routes cancelled in five years) has put extra pressure on the already stretched local railway service. We have no option but to shut off the statistic that at least two people lose their lives daily by falling off crowded trains at peak hours. We haven’t noticed that the hue and cry after each incident of infrastructural collapse dies down after a few weeks. And that neither political will nor civic determination is able to ensure any kind of safety for the stressed Mumbaikar.

Post mortems of the events bring to light audits that cast shadows on the state of the bridges, and suggested repairs which were eventually buried under tender notices that never saw the light of day. The railways and the civic administration will spar over the CST incident as they did over the Andheri and Elphinstone incidents, tossing the ball of responsibility into each other’s court. The Mumbaikar will continue to pay some of the highest civic taxes in the country even as the BMC dithers over making walkable footpaths. The politician-builder nexus that has carved up the city’s entrails meanwhile, can happily look the other way, as long as the “gated communities” that keep popping up over the metropolis keep the privileged in cocooned luxury.

The breakdown of infrastructure at an alarming frequency however, means that no one, rich or poor, will be spared. You could be a nurse walking the overbridge, headed for a night shift or a well-heeled civic official in a swanky SUV, headed home to the suburbs from the BMC headquarters. Once the gravel decides to crumble, the debris doesn’t distinguish between who it descends on.

And yet, there are no virulent protests, no angry outbursts from a citizenry too preoccupied with living for the day. In one of the world’s most dynamic cities, no one has the time to even question the authorities for a better life. For a train that will arrive on time, for a bridge that will not collapse while they are walking on it, for manhole covers that are in place while they are wading home through waist-deep waters in the rains.

Who cares? It’s just another day in Mumbai.