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No beating about the bush.
The poorly-conceived, poorly-designed, poorly-constructed, hurriedly-executed, ‘big-ticket’ skywalks in Mumbai are a scam of sorts. Are we seeing a similar pattern in all MMRDA’s projects?
In any suburban railway system, whether it is Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai, commuters need to cross the tracks at least once during their daily commute. The frequency of suburban trains is high, but somewhat random. If there are more than two lines, as is the case in Mumbai, the randomness increases. To avert accidents like commuters getting run over, foot overbridges (FOB) have been provided. Level crossings are being done away with to enable uninterrupted movement of road traffic and avoid rail services slowing down, by providing road overbridges (ROB). Sometimes, instead of FOBs, pedestrian subways or pedestrian underpasses have been provided, as at most railway stations in Navi Mumbai, and even at Churchgate and Borivli stations. At terminuses like Churchgate and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (previously Victoria Terminus) or Panvel, FOBs are not required at the terminal ends.
When the number of railway lines increases to four, as is the case on the Mumbai suburban railway system and at stations such as Dadar, Bandra, Andheri, Borivli, Virar, Kurla, Thane, Kalyan and from Vashi to Panvel, more than 75% of commuters cross the tracks at any peak period. The growing commuter population increases the density not only on the FOBs, but also on the municipal roads adjoining the stations and on the approach roads.
While population growth increased the commuter density on the access roads to the stations, commuter dispersal which previously happened on foot or on bicycles and to a limited extent by the BEST's feeder buses and taxis, changed to motorcycles, scooters and then autorickshaws (introduced in suburban Mumbai in the 1970s), and feeder BEST buses, private contract buses and taxis, pushing cyclists out of their parking spaces and also making it difficult for walking and operating feeder bus services. With so many people at any one station at a given time, it was only natural that hawkers began to serve them with fruits and vegetables, and put up for sale several utility items that a person could buy on his/her way to work or on the way back home. This added to the chaos at the outlet points of stations, necessitating in-planning Station Area Traffic Improvement Schemes (SATIS) under the Mumbai Urban Transport Project (MUTP) in 2003. Unfortunately, this could not be pursued with on the ground level beyond Ghatkopar and Chembur stations and even here the SATIS have not been done fully. The Thane SATIS, although not under the MUTP, seems to have overcome the chaos that prevailed earlier. Thane does have an elevated access way which is now termed as a "skywalk". The unique feature in Thane is that buses climb up the approach ramps to the FOB levels, while taxis, autorickshaws and cars drive at the road level, facilitating comfortable onward commute for a majority of the rail passengers.
Since every commuter uses the FOB, it was felt that if the commuter is provided with a continued obstruction free walking space at the FOB level, leading to the spot from where further commute is facilitated, the commuter would be significantly unburdened and happy. Since similar facilities existed in world class cities like Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and in Europe, the planners on the Mumbai Transformation Support Unit felt it could be emulated here too.
This concept of commuter dispersal is nothing new to Mumbai. It was very effectively provided at Charni Road station in the 1970s. Only very recently this was further augmented by a sheltered footbridge at the Opera House end. Success of the Charni Road footbridges was primarily because road traffic on Queen's Road (re-named Maharshi Karve Road) was quite heavy and required a smoother flow. Also, Girgaum had plenty of shops and vendors catering to commuters returning home from Girgaum, and so hawkers did not line the way at Charni Road Station. Another example is at Vile Parle Station, on the east.
The access to Bandra station on the east was narrow. It was difficult for feeder buses to turn around and pick up passengers going to the upmarket CBD at Bandra-Kurla-Complex (BKC), where the volume of commuters was growing rapidly. Autorickshaws added to the chaos and the closest mass transit station to the upmarket CBD was becoming a nightmare. This road also catered to the Bandra Railway Terminus for some long-distance trains on the Western Railway. In order to improve matters quickly, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) with its office at BKC, came up with the "skywalk" concept. It provided a six-metre wide walkway from Kalanagar junction, across the Western Express Highway, up to the FOB at Bandra Station on the east. Planners found that the FOB was at a much lower level than the skywalk at their point of meeting and provided eight to ten stairs.
At that time, an additional FOB was being planned, adjoining the existing one but at a higher level, presumably matching the skywalk level; this seems to have been completed, but has not been extended to connect with the skywalk. The skywalk also turned out to be a revenue generating model from advertisements on the visible stretches, especially over the highway. The Kalanagar Nagar stairway is alongside a bus halt for buses to BKC, Dharavi-Sion and Navi Mumbai. There is space for autorickshaws and taxis to pick up or drop passengers. The irony is that despite these and the close proximity to offices and the housing colonies at Kalanagar, very not enough people use this 1.3 km skywalk to be able to justify its construction.
Perhaps the revenue model was so attractive that MMRDA embarked on constructing 50 more skywalks all over Mumbai, without any public consultation. If one took a look at MMRDA's costs on ongoing projects, skywalks have been allocated Rs1,500 crore for the entire MMR. Many people opposed the construction of these skywalks as many required 'trimming' of trees, the pillars occupied considerable space in the narrow approach lanes, and they also raised concerns about privacy for residents in buildings in the neighbourhood. Some groups have succeeded in stalling some of the projects-like in Wadala. Consequently, MMRDA reduced the number of skywalks proposed from 50 to 36. Of these, 28 have been opened to the public. The cost of the project has been put at Rs735 crore covering Greater Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan, etc.
MMRDA seems to have been in such a great hurry to show they are trying to make commuter's commute less arduous that they failed in the details. To make it easier for commuters to negotiate the climb of eight to ten metres, escalators or elevators were to be provided. This is also required under the "Persons
with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act 1995" for people with disabilities. Now it is being said that there is no space to provide for this; as if this could not have been planned out at the outset itself. Perhaps, like the railways, the planners had no intention to make the facility friendly for the elderly, expectant women and those with knee and ankle problems. So much has been spent on these skywalks, but the tiling for the flooring selected with great care has not been laid properly and already damages are visible at Santacruz and Kalyan. At Santacruz, the tile patterns have not been worked out according to the drawing and one sees colour mismatches. Providing waste bins is a good idea, but what about the garbage that drops on those using the road below?
Since it was felt that hawkers occupied space at the road level and caused impediments to commuters, but they cannot be ignored as commuters purchase their wares and hawkers have to be able to earn a livelihood, MMRDA came up with the idea of a 7-metre wide skywalk with a 3-metre hawking zone, leaving 4 metres for commuters only, as done at Kanjurmarg (East). However, this was opposed by activists and the High Court banned such skywalks. If the 7-metre skywalk had a hawking zone, it meant no permanent stalls on the skywalk and this would have been quite acceptable. But going by what has been provided at the Kalyan Station Skywalk, perhaps the High Court was correct.
Incidentally, the Kalyan Skywalk seems to be the only one that has a ramp connecting the difference in level between the FOB and the skywalk.
Considerable integration is also involved. MMRDA is responsible for planning and implementation of the skywalks and the Metro rail. The Metro Rail Line 2 (Charkop-Bandra-Mankhurd) is expected to go over the section of the skywalk on SV Road in Bandra (west). Perhaps a part of it will have to be dismantled, and what remains will be connected to the Bandra Station on the Metro Rail when it is constructed!
The only skywalk that will be useful is the one at Sion Station This is so, mainly because about 15,000 school children from the Sion Station side are said to cross over to go to schools on the Matunga side, as well as across the Ambedkar Road/Laxmibai Kelkar Marg, where there is considerable chaos in the movement of pedestrians and road traffic. How many people will use the new facility is anybody's guess, as they will have to cross Laxmibai Kelkar Marg by the pedestrian subway and then climb the skywalk. Train commuters have to climb to the station road bridge from the platform, then a further 8-10 meters up to the skywalk, and then down by the subway. How much more unfriendly can we be towards pedestrians?
Climbing up requires a lot of breathing, and the heavily polluted air at road junctions could result in increased breathing ailments for many. Hearing impairment will also accentuate as noise reaches the skywalks from all directions, while the same noise would get dampened by traffic at road level. Noise also contributes to cardio-vascular diseases.
Mumbai seems to have set a trend. Skywalks have come up in Bengaluru and Delhi and some are being planned in Pune also. Even a small matter like a skywalk requires public consultation. In a country where even a Metro has been planned and is being implemented without any public consultation [the cost stated by the government (MMRDA) is about Rs20,000 crore, while it is established to be above Rs60,000 crore] can we expect anything better if citizens are going to take these matters lying down? Metros, monorails and skywalks, are these not scams of sorts with inflated costs, inadequate capacity and poor utility, not to forget the health hazards?
[Sudhir Badami is a civil engineer and transportation analyst. He is on the Government of Maharashtra's Steering Committee on Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) for Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority's (MMRDA) technical advisory committee on BRTS for Mumbai. He is also member of the Research & MIS Committee of Unified Mumbai Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMMTA). He was a member of the Bombay High Court-appointed erstwhile Road Monitoring Committee (2006-07). He has been an active campaigner against noise pollution for over a decade and he is a strong believer in a functioning democracy. He can be contacted on email at [email protected].]