Friday, December 14, 2007

A non violent protest and lessons

December 10th is widely marked across the world as Human Rights Day. On the precise day in Mumbai, a symbolic protest was organised by an umbrella organisation led by the youth federation of the biggest leftist party in India, the CPI(M). The protest involved a boycott of the local municipal train network at some of the most busiest junctions in the western sector of the Mumbai Metropolitan train service. The boycott of the train service was near total with commuters preferring either to stay home on the working day or to use alternative means of transport to go to work. The simple use of a non-violent protest to register the disaffection with the problematic rail service was enough to bring media and authority attention on the strenuous conditions that governed rail-travel in India's most populated, dense and vibrant city, Mumbai. The protestors demanded increased frequency of service to reduce the load in the trains during peak hours in select stations where passenger density was the highest. Officials in charge of the railway functioning responded by promising to act upon assurances made earlier, much more quickly. In effect the registered protest was successful in raising the consciousness of the authorities about the pressing problems of the commuters.

When I arrived in Mumbai to start my journalistic career, I was terribly appalled at the crowded and almost dehumanized travel conditions that one had to experience while getting onto the trains to go to work. Apparently, the trains are the most convenient and the fastest way to travel, because of severe congestion in road transport, owing to near dilapidated traffic conditions as well as the profusion of private transport in the form of cars. The train service strives on manfully connecting arterially nearly every major location within the city and nearly 3/4th of the population uses this facility for commuting. However, the increase in population and no corresponding commensurate increase in facility has meant that trains are extremely crowded featuring heavy densities of commuters packed in stuffy compartments. In the western sector, particularly, the stuffing is so immense that many passengers fall off the train while travel, and there has been a rise in such casualties. Elaborate promise were made to ensure that there would be effective increases in rail services in the form of newer train rakes and lines, but the implementation has been at best ineffective, owing to delays in project fructification and lack of political will to address immediate relief to the harassed commuters. In the meantime, the commuters themselves have become sufficiently dehumanized to accept these conditions as they have adjusted to this packed stuffing experience as a normal routine. I personally would admit to that. Jostling and pushing for space and a tendency to elbow my way through is now a daily routine and I am surprised when I recall much shocked I was initially when I first used the service merely five months ago.

Not that I am not used to crowded trains. A stint in the suburbs of Tokyo for two years was responsible for experiencing similar crowded conditions in train travel. However, the relative comfort of the air conditioned trains and the seeming order displayed by the commuters made travel feel less strenuous, and quite fulfilling, in stark contrast to the experience of similar train travel in Mumbai. Suburban trains play as much an important role as in Mumbai in the extended city complex from Tokyo to Yokohama and the train network is the lifeline for transport for the dense populace within these industrial sectors. The hallmark of transportation in Tokyo is the substantively well maintained train network which include a slew of overground and underground trains and the fact that private transport in the form of cars and motor vehicles is more or less only secondary. In contrast in Mumbai, even though train transport remains the preferred option among the working classes, the proliferation of individual owned private transport has clogged the arteries of the roads in the city.

Added to the above fact is that expanding roads and constructing new ones has become a even more difficult proposition because of the encroachment problems. Lack of very effective urban planning has meant that every effort toward a consolidated model of comfortable urban transportation is complicated by the automatic but unplanned increase in pressure on services because of population increase or shrinkage of spaces. Thus infrastructure is one of the major constraints in building an effective transportation facility in quick time. There are plans aplenty to introduce newer services ranging from underground “metros” or “tube rails” to overhanging “skybuses” to cater to the burgeoning population and the Mumbai Urban Transport Project is co-ordinating the implementation of these plans. Land-sea links are being constructed to emulate similar mega projects that have been attempted in other cities such as Shanghai. High profile underground rail projects are being envisioned in line with the implementation of similar projects in other metros such as Delhi and Kolkata in India. Some amount of scepticism however remains vis-a-vis the burgeoning cost of such projects and whether at all the returns will be generated quickly and is commensurate with the costs.

That lack of enough will in quick implementation as well as a co-ordinated strategy to address the reasons for the same is what plagues Mumbai, is understood by nearly all stakeholders in the city. The problems of congestion and high burden is a complicated one. Apart from the slow implementation initiatives, there are other complex factors of increased migration to the city from the hinterlands in the country. Migration due to lack of sufficient rural economic growth and lopsided development is just another story. Yet, even these problems could be much mitigated if the city planners are responsive enough to spread out the developing locations away from the main metropolis, another area which requires concerted effort by the government which unfortunately leaves this duty in the hands of profit minded entrepreneurs and private bodies.

The suggestions to improve the functioning of the city in the age of globalisation and liberalisation veer down to “corporate solutions” such as naming of CEOs for the city and leaving the job of managing the city to an elite group of technocrats serviced by private corporations. Such suggestions do not consider the import of the necessity of assuring that citizens' democratic bodies capable of self regulation and participatory decision making are more efficient in conjunction with dedicated government action. But these are long term solutions. Short term effective solutions should consider that elaborate mechanisms such as queuing before boarding in stations, presence of services to be activated for accident casualties, and proper boards and signals to prevent passengers from using rail lines to cross platforms be assured. This would help reduce the dehumanisation that plagues commuting today in the city.

The non-violent protest undertaken on December 10th tells us a few things. The people in Mumbai who have been using the train services and have experienced near tortuous conditions of travel have had it enough. They want the promises made to be delivered quickly. The form of protest and the near unanimous participation also points out to the fact that the people want to get on with their lives in peace and do not want a confrontational attitude with the establishment, but only want them to be responsive to their needs and be sympathetic to their travails. Affordable, safe and comfortable travel is a minimum guarantee that blue collar workers, toilers, employees in the vast service industry, etc in Mumbai need. That means a responsive establishment, concerned for the plight of it's fellow citizens who are the lifeline of the vibrant economy that Mumbai projects itself to be, is the need of the hour. Which in turn means that this establishment must re-orient its efforts to take steps to handle the problem itself and not leave it for speculators and large corporations to take them up. This also means that citizens who have shown restraint in their ways of protest and hence responsibility, should show the same concern for the fellow passenger while alighting the clogged trains. A concerted effort therefore requires all sections of the society to act socially in help overcoming the beleaguered problems in urban transport.

Article written for The Post

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