MUMBAI: Cricket-mad teenager Dhaval Lodaya was on his way to a temple when his Mumbai train derailed and he bled to death – becoming one of the ten people who die every day on the city’s rail network.
Known as the lifeline of India’s congested financial capital, the low-fare trains have become a dangerous gamble for the millions of commuters who use them daily, with a total of 3,506 deaths recorded last year alone.
In a city that has grown around its rail system, built by the British 160 years ago, many today are killed crossing the tracks.
Some have heart attacks in the overcrowded carriages, or fall from doors of moving trains and hit trackside poles.
On journeys ferrying commuters from outlying suburbs to the business districts, scores are charred to death each year while travelling on coach roofs as high-voltage electricity courses through overhead wires, say activists.
So although 17-year-old Lodaya’s death on March 20 was far from rare, it was a tipping point for some Mumbai residents who – spurred on by his family and friends – marched in their hundreds to nearby train stations in anger at railway authorities.
“We lost the light of our family. We told the authorities they had forced us to protest and they should remedy the situation,” Lodaya’s father Mayur Lodaya said at his modest family apartment in Mumbai, where the teenager’s picture sits on a small television.
When Lodaya’s train derailed north of the city, an ambulance took more than an hour to reach the spot and railway police failed to move the boy to safety, his father alleged.
Rail officials told him traffic-clogged roads caused the delays.
A Facebook page titled “Justice for Dhaval Lodaya”, set up by friends to keep tabs on the promised investigation into his death, has received nearly 30,000 “likes” pledging support.
Despite the dangers facing passengers, a leading activist said lucrative returns from the Mumbai rail network, which carries 7.5 million passengers daily, offer little incentive for reform by the state-owned Indian Railways.
Samir Zaveri, who became a rail safety campaigner after losing both his legs in a fall from a Mumbai train two decades ago, said corruption and mismanagement are the main reasons for the current state of the rail system.
“Mumbai is the cash cow of Indian Railways. So even though the authorities may cry about the paucity of funds, the fact is that Mumbai is a lucrative posting for Indian Railways officials,” he said.
Zaveri also accused officials of bribing their way into posts in Mumbai and shaking down station vendors.
“Indulging in corruption and not improvement of services is the focus,” he said.
A senior Mumbai railway official, who declined to be named, said approval had been given for automatic doors on all local coaches to prevent people from falling, but that these would be difficult to fit while keeping trains on schedule.
“The (safety) problem is known, but the solution is problematic,” he said, declining to say whether his colleagues were involved in corruption.
Improving India’s notoriously bad infrastructure, from its roads and railways to its unreliable power supply, is seen as key to kickstarting slowing economic growth.
Both of the major parties that are currently contesting India’s national elections have pledged to tackle the problem.
However, complex politics and constraints on land in Mumbai have led to a number of ambitious past projects being delayed by years and failing to significantly combat congestion.
Transport experts have criticised a partly-finished monorail project, so far only stretching for 8.8km in the city’s east, for overshooting its deadline and budget while a long-awaited and expensive Metro rail project is yet to open.
Despite Mumbai’s wealth, the city is part of the much larger and mostly rural Maharashtra state, whose
legislators are more interested in their hinterland constituencies, said Uttara Sahasrabuddhe, a professor in civics and politics at the University of Mumbai.
“Issues of Mumbai remain out of focus,” she said.
India’s ruling Congress party, which has dominated Maharashtra for most of its history, created new agencies in order to wrest control of spending after it lost power over Mumbai’s municipal corporation
to a local rival in the 1990s, Sahasrabuddhe explained.
Hence Mumbai’s own representatives “can do little more than plead with the Congress-led state government about city spending,” she added.
One such agency, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority or MMRDA, points to several other factors that are causing delays.
“The biggest issue in Mumbai is securing land rights to start building your project.
“Land is so scarce that nobody budges even an inch,” Dilip Kawathkar, MMRDA spokesman, said.
Mumbai has two recent transport success stories: a swanky new international airport terminal and a “Sea Link” toll bridge connecting the city’s north and south, but critics say they benefit just a wealthy fraction of the city.
As public transport options for the masses fail to improve, more and more residents are piling on to the roads on motorbikes and in cars.
“In a city which is so short on space, the focus should be on stopping more cars from getting on to the road.
“We seem to be consciously doing the opposite,” said local transport expert Ashok Datar.
“It is like we are planning for disaster.” — AFP