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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Mumbai stampede: India rolls out new safety measures as death toll rises to 23

Railways minister Piyush Goyal said he was empowering station managers 'to spend whatever is necessary' to ensure safety following Friday's deadly stampede on a pedestrian overbridge connecting two stations

An Indian man mourns outside a morgue in Mumbai on September 29, 2017 for a relative killed in the stampede at the Parel and Elphinstone stations. Rafiq Maqbool / AP
An Indian man mourns outside a morgue in Mumbai on September 29, 2017 for a relative killed in the stampede at the Parel and Elphinstone stations. Rafiq Maqbool / AP

India’s railways minister said on Saturday he had empowered station managers "to spend whatever is necessary" to ensure safety as the death toll from a stampede on a station footbridge in Mumbai rose to 23 after another person died from their injuries.

Thirty-eight other people were injured in the disaster on Friday morning, which took place on a rain-slicked pedestrian overbridge connecting the city's Parel and Elphinstone stations.

"To eliminate bureaucracy and delays, I have empowered GMs to spend whatever is necessary on safety," railways minister Piyush Goyal said in a series of tweets posted during a meeting of top railway department officials in Mumbai.

Mr Goyal said he had also ordered additional escalators at crowded rail stations in the city and for CCTV cameras to be rolled out at stations across the country over the next 15 months.

The tweets came after Mr Goyal said on Friday he had ordered a slew of new safety audits of Mumbai's commuter rail network in the wake of the stampede. Officials would be given a week "to identify vulnerable issues", he said.

But these post-accident measures only serve to highlight the past negligence of railway authorities, even as the poor condition of the Parel-Elphinstone bridge was pointed out repeatedly by members of the public.

Over the past four years, more than 110 posts on Twitter tagging various arms of the country's railway authorities have raised concerns about the bridge.

“Pre-rush hour Parel station. The only staircase which people use to exit and enter the station. A major accident is waiting to happen,” the political cartoonist Manjul, who uses only one name, wrote in February. His tweet included photos that showed the steel-framed footbridge bursting at its seams with people.

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In July last year, Twitter user K K Chandan tweeted a similar photo, tagging prime minister Narendra Modi and the then railways minister, Suresh Prabhu. “Is central mumbai station ‘Parel’ awaiting a stampede?,” Mr Chandan wrote.

A stampede finally did occur on Friday as hundreds of people waited on the covered footbridge, taking shelter from the rain. When four trains arrived at the same time, all on different lines, a rush began. People slipped on the bridge's wet surface and were trampled underfoot. The panic was compounded by fears that the bridge was about to collapse due to how many people were on it.

India's railway authorities carry out safety inspections of steel-framed station footbridges twice a year. The Parel-Elphinstone bridge was determined to be safe at its last such inspection earlier this year.

Over the coming week, teams of engineers, railway officials and health and safety inspectors will fan out across Mumbai’s 140 stations to conduct fresh audits.

Footwear and other items lie at the site of the bridge stampede in Mumbai on September 29, 2017. Rafiq Maqbool / AP
Footwear and other items lie at the site of the bridge stampede in Mumbai on September 29, 2017. Rafiq Maqbool / AP

Back in November 2014, a legislator from Mumbai’s Shiv Sena party, Arvind Sawant, raised concerns about the condition of the Parel-Elphinstone footbridge in parliament.

More than a year later, in February 2016, Mr Prabhu wrote to Mr Sawant to address his concerns. He said the condition of the footbridge, located in Mr Sawant's constituency, was “under our positive consideration” but noted that funds were tight.

“It has been one of the toughest years for the Indian Railways because of the adverse effects of the global slowdown,” Mr Prabhu’s letter said.

Soon after, Mr Prabhu sanctioned roughly 95 million rupees (Dh5.3m) in his railways budget to build a new 40 foot-wide bridge connecting the Parel and Elphinstone stations. But no subsequent progress on the project was made. That is until Friday when, after the stampede, Western Railways, the agency that manages Mumbai’s rail network, called for bids from companies to construct a new bridge.

The lives lost at Parel and Elphinstone form part of a larger and more dismal record of deaths on the city’s rail network, which is notoriously overburdened. Roughly 7.5 million passengers ride the trains every day, with carriages often packed to one-and-a-half times their capacity.

On average, 3,000 people lose their lives on Mumbai’s tracks every year. So far in 2017, 2,166 people have died.

Across India, 600 railway accidents have occurred over the past five years. Mr Prabhu resigned in August after two trains derailed in four days, killing 22 people and injuring more than 200. Mr Goyal replaced him in early September.

The government’s failure to address issues of railway safety has been shocking, said Samir Zaveri, an activist who has filed multiple legal petitions and Right to Information requests to push for improvements.

In 1989, Mr Zaveri lost both of his legs when he slipped and fell on a railway track and was hit by a train. Since 2006, he has been relentless in his activism, extracting a number of small victories, such as rooms for medical assistance in stations and better ambulance services.

But truly large changes can only come from the authorities, and they’ve simply ignored the need to revamp the rail network’s infrastructure, Mr Zaveri said.

“The trains are full of poor people, so no attention is paid to them at all. It’s just a sheer dismissal of human life.”