When I woke up to the news of commuters in Mumbai dying in a stampede at the railway foot over bridge of Parel station, I was shaken to the core. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Visualise this. One moment, you are vying to go to work, or meet a friend, or visit a hospital (there are aplenty near Parel railway station), and the next moment life is snuffed out of you, at the snap of a finger.
Images of the September 29 stampede were all over the media and they are disturbing. Heads, hands, necks, upper bodies of men and women, young and old were stuck in the fenced iron barricades of Mumbai’s railways. They were being stomped over by a mad crowd scurrying up and down, as they waited to die. Most deaths happened due to asphyxia (choking). 14 men and 8 women fell short of air to breathe as they lay dying. Now that is the worst kind of death imaginable.
Until 5 pm on September 29, 22 deaths had been confirmed by King Edward Memorial Hospital, the closest emergency room to the spot of accident. Thirty-nine more were injured. The youngest of the deceased lot was in their twenties, the oldest in their sixties.
As unprecedented rains lashed Mumbai at close to 10.30 am, commuters instead of exiting the bridge took shelter near there, leading to overcrowding. A train pulls in at the platform every two minutes. Hundreds de-board at major halts, Parel and Elphinstone Road being major ones see massive rush every day.
Having taken that 20 minute-ride on a slow train every day from home to office for 4 years, the most dreaded of all times awaited me, each time, at Parel railway station, when an exodus of commuters would alight, vying to climb the narrow staircase to get onto the narrow overbridge, which would lead them to their respective destinations.
Every inch of the platform and the overbridge are crowded, almost all day. Over the years, the population of Mumbai has swollen, the number of commuters accessing the station from outside of Mumbai has increased too, but the platform size remains the same, so does the size of the overbridge. It is 16-feet-wide and 104-feet-long.
It breaks your heart to see young children, wearing face masks, holding their guardian’s fingers, making their way slowly through the steps, to Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital, less than a kilometre away from the station. Wadia Children’s Hospital and civic-run KEM Hospital are also nearby. Flanked by swanky corporate offices on one side and hospitals on another, the railway station and the over bridge become all the more sought after, by all rungs of the society. And then there are labourers carrying heavy loads of luggage, perched on their head, struggling to make their way up through the hassled masses.
The very thought of ascending or alighting the over bridge seems herculean to me. I was a traveller at non-peak hours, yet it took me 20 to 30 minutes to traverse the stretch from the platform up to the over bridge and down to the exit gate of the station, almost the same or more time that it would take for me to travel from my home station, Vikhroli to Parel.
People walked glued to each other, one’s body touching the other, the stink of sweat pervading the air, fresh breath was hard to come by, a prayer on my lips to just get through this ordeal to reach the air-conditioned confines of my workplace, which was practically next door to the station. If it were not so crowded, it would have merely taken me five minutes to exit the station from the platform.
The quality of life in Mumbai has deteriorated beyond measure. Mumbai’s railway ferries close to 80 lakh passengers, every single day, which is the entire population of Switzerland! On an average, 10 persons fall from overcrowded trains every single day. Every other month, a local train that I would be travelling on would come to a screeching halt on a platform, and there would be a buzz. A corpse cut into two was waiting to be cleared.
A stretcher would be brought, mutilated human remains would be loaded on it in a jiffy, a few workmen would run in a scattered fashion through the length of the platform, a green signal would be provided to the driver and life would return on wheels.