MUMBAI — At the height of the Mumbai rush hour, boarding a train is about as easy as finding a comfortable position in a rugby scrum. On the overcrowded platform, those wearing glasses carefully tuck them away in their cases before taking a deep breath and pushing into the compact crowd of passengers until they find their balance on the footboard, their bodies leaning to the outside.
The doors never close. There aren't even doors anymore. To make commutes in these impossibly crowded compartments remotely tolerable, passengers organize and form groups of friends. Some sing, others bet on the stock market or play cards. The better-organized have set up rotation systems for the seats.
“We spend so much time together, we know each other so well, that we even organize picnics on weekends,” says Yogesh Sapkale, associate editor in chief of the magazine Money Life. With 7.5 million daily passengers, the trains in Mumbai, India’s most populous city, are the most overloaded in the world, even according to the Indian Railway Ministry.
Rail traffic has increased sixfold in the last 40 years, whereas transport capacities have merely doubled over the same period. At the same time, Mumbai’s population, now estimated at 20 million, has soared. Its density is twice that of New York, and there are no skyscrapers. It has become so complicated to build new rail lines in such a densely populated city that one of the only ways of increasing transport capacities is to extend the trains and increase their speed.
A city close to asphyxiation
For Mumbai’s residents, trains are an unavoidable means of transport. During rush hours, the only alternative would be to drive at 2.5 mph on roads that cannot always be used, especially during monsoon season. The traffic is actually so slow that young businessmen have had the idea to broadcast advertising spots through loudspeakers fixed on three-wheeled motorcycles amid the traffic jams. Walking may be quicker, but the distances are very long: The city is 75 miles long from north to south.
If Mumbai is close to asphyxiation, it is first of all because of its geography. The city is built on a peninsula and can only develop northward. But the historic areas, the city’s economic heart, are in the south, a cul-de-sac where real estate prices continue to rise. To find housing at an affordable price, the middle class has no other choice than to live in the residential complexes in the north of the city, which are poorly connected to the center.
In Mumbai, the railways are called “lifelines.” Except that 10 to 12 passengers perish every day. Some climb on the train roofs and die from electrocution. Others fall from the overcrowded compartments, and others still are run over as the cross the railroads.
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Packed suburban train in Mumbai — Photo: Stefan
Despite the 20 to 25 daily accidents, the trains are always on time. They are so punctual, in fact, that a journalist broacast live for two hours on television next to an injured man lying between two rails in the middle of a station while at least 20 trains passed over him.
AJ More is head of the railway police team in charge of accidents in a zone that includes seven stations. In his small and moldy office, shelves are crumbling under piles of victim files, wrapped in white fabrics as if they were bodies. The police officer has neither a computer nor telephone, but he does have a camera to take photographs of the bodies on which no ID papers or mobile phones were found. One in three victims is incinerated or buried without having been identified. “These deceased are often rural migrants, and their families aren’t aware that their relative has disappeared,” More explains.
Train accidents on the rise
Passengers sometimes die long after their injuries. Other times, ambulances stuck in traffic arrive too late or even simply turn back. Some don’t even bother coming anymore. “Recently, an ambulance driver came to complain,” the police officer says, sighing. “Of the $12 compensation he earns for the transport of a victim, the station supervisor wanted to keep $3 as a commission.”
Samir Zaveri, who was hit by a train 24 years ago, has built a reputation as a passenger rights advocate. Thanks to his persistence and legal initiative, the Dadar station has opened a medical center where injured passengers can receive first aid. This has saved many lives. He is also fighting for better compensation for the families of victims. Right now, it amounts to $9,820. “Why do people who die in a train accident cost less than people who die in a plane crash?” he says angrily.
Meanwhile, accidents are on the rise, and stations now have their own pallbearers of sorts. In Mumbai’s central station, Shankar Naidu transports bodies to make ends meet. His mortician uniform — a red shirt blackened by dirt, far too large for his puny body — also serves as his pajamas. Naidu starts and finishes his day at the end of a platform.
When he hears from the station loudspeakers that a “carrier for an accident” is requested at the train police station, he rushes there. He earns $1.60 for every body or injured person he transports to the hospital. “Most of the time, the bodies are in a state of decomposition because the accidents go unnoticed or aren’t reported,” Naidu explains.
In short, death has become routine on railways here. “Tomorrow morning, a young employee will kiss his wife and children goodbye before setting off to work, and I will pick him up in pieces on the tracks, because he wanted to get on an overcrowded train at all costs for fear of losing half a day’s salary,” More says, disgusted. “It’s the price to pay to live in Mumbai.”