When the memories of the stampede on the Foot over Bridge (FoB) that killed 23 people at Elphinstone Road station in September 2017 are still to fade away, one more bridge has collapsed in Mumbai, hitting the city with yet another shameful civic tragedy.
On Tuesday morning, Mumbai came to a halt as a portion of Gokhale bridge, a Road over Bridge (RoB) running over the rail tracks in suburban Andheri, came crashing down on the railway tracks, damaging the overhead electric wire, throwing the Western Railway line of the city out of gear. Five people were injured, of which, two are believed to be critical. Nearly 3.5 million daily commuters, who are served by 1,355 WR-operated services over a 123-km-long network from Dahanu Road to Churchgate, got stranded. Luckily, the incident took place a few minutes before rush hour, and that a train driver managed to halt a packed train just few meters before the accident spot. Else, this could have been a massive tragedy.
The tragedy snowballed as the suburban train services, that were suspended immediately after the bridge collapse, could resume normal operations only after more than 18 hours of the accident.
While both agencies involved in the incident, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and the Western Railways, spent the entire day pushing the blame on each other due to unclear jurisdictions, this horrific episode raises larger issues of safety and security of the lives of the citizens of India's commercial capital. Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, who, as usual, arrived in Mumbai in a jiffy, announced, as usual, a joint audit of all the bridges looked after by both the MCGM and railways.
However, a closer look at the incident reveals these uncomfortable facts, which could have been tackled merely by regular maintenance, without any need for a minister-mandated structural audit:
This incident has once again highlighted gaping holes in the governance of Mumbai and other megapolises in India dealing with multiple agencies and crumbling infrastructure, which need to be fixed on a war footing.
There needs to be clarity on the jurisdiction of assets -- in this case, the bridge. Like on toll gates, a board should be put up on every large asset, like bridges, flyovers, underpasses etc. mentioning the agency that has constructed the bridge, its age, the contractor’s name and which agency is in charge of its maintenance. Such a board must have contact address and phone numbers of the agency concerned. There was huge ambiguity on who was maintaining the bridge in Andheri, leading to the blame game among agencies.
The bridge that came down on Tuesday morning was constructed by the MCGM, but as it went over a railway property, both agencies come into play and need to share the responsibility. Regular annual audit, monitoring of funds and work and finally securing the areas have to be put into place as part of a joint standard operating procedure that must be strictly implemented. All the minutes of the coordination committee meetings and joint audits need to be put up in public domain.
Although agencies do conduct structural audits, there needs to be an overall asset management plan with all agencies, and in the case of Mumbai, a joint one for the 77 bridges looked after jointly by the MCGM and the railways. All the original contracts signed between the two agencies must be put up for public scrutiny, giving the details of how the distribution of responsibilities was arrived at. There has to be a GIS-based tabulation of the age and condition of the assets, capitalisation norms, depreciation rates etc.
Although the MCGM seems to have moved ahead in this direction for its own assets, the plan is still not implemented. Very often it is seen that agencies do not define the age of assets and keep spending on the maintenance for years through structural audits. This is particularly true of the bridges of the British era in Mumbai, which seem to have a never-ending life.
Asset ageing is an important component of structural engineering and it is important to make a realistic assessment of the life of each asset. There is a close link between infrastructure renewals expenditure and maintenance expenditure. Post that period, it is observed that the maintenance costs are very high and the technologies are redundant and no longer relevant for repairs. Once the asset is renewed, it is seen that the maintenance costs drop considerably. In India, the maintenance is also closely linked with a contractor lobby that is happy to earn maintenance contracts in perpetuity.
New techniques of assessing the impact of climate change on assets like salinity factor of water, seepage, heat-induced expansion and other factors need to be taken into consideration in modern asset management systems.
Over the past year, apathy and indifference of the governing agencies have killed innocent people with almost predictable regularity. People have died falling into open manholes, due to tree collapses because of lack of pruning and road accidents due to potholes.
Once again, Mumbai will slowly crawl back to normalcy and its spirit will be celebrated. But it is time that the managers of the city take human safety and security seriously and fix the gaps to avoid an unsurmountable tragedy that is waiting to happen. Luck will not favour the city every time, the way it did on 3 July 2018.
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