Mumbai’s Crumbling Infrastructure: Are We Burning Our Bridges before Crossing Them? -Part 1
The most memorable character for me in ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’ was the whimsical ruler, the Queen of Hearts. Her much-loved phrase, which she would repeat ad nauseam was "Off with his head!" or "Off with their heads!"
I was reminded of her when I read in a news on 12 May 2019 that, based on a report from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, the Western Railway had ordered another bridge to be demolished, this time a foot overbridge (FOB) at the busy Dadar station.
The alacrity with which this decision has been taken demonstrates extreme nervousness on the part of the railways administration after the partial collapse of the FOB near Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) on 14 March 2019 and its reluctance to take a more considered line of action, including a peer review.
I wonder if the possible fallout of this decree to demolish the Dadar FOB has been adequately examined, because while the memory of the CST FOB collapse is still fresh in the minds of the state apparatus, it appears that the stampede of 29 September 2017 in which 23 people lost their lives has vanished from our collective memory.
The demolition of this wide overbridge at Dadar has the potential to cause chaos in the event of two trains arriving at a platform in quick succession as the other parallel bridges are challenged by bottlenecks caused by narrow landings.
I doubt if a disaster scenario simulation and testing had been carried out before such a far-reaching decision was taken. And there is certainly no concern for the inconvenience likely to be suffered by commuters, harried as they already are by the simultaneous construction of the metro line, road repairs and road excavations to lay numerous pipes and cables.
The city has not yet recovered from IIT Bombay’s earlier edict to demolish the Delisle bridge and continues to reel from the loss of millions of rupees due to perennial traffic snarls at Parel, arguably Mumbai’s new financial hub.
It would be fair to ask what exactly constitutes an 'IIT' report, for it to be taken as the Holy Bible by the administration.
For the government, IIT is a magic wand-wielding institute, a one-stop solution for all the government’s woes when it does not know what to do with a dilapidated building in the monsoon or is facing a public interest litigation (PIL) on account of its stock of poorly maintained infrastructure—bridges, hospitals, schools, colleges or when it wants to draft the building codes for the country (a look at the code committees of the Bureau of Indian Standards would be illuminating) or for vetting new construction. (Many cities in the country have made being a faculty member of an IIT a very lucrative affair by mandating that all buildings within their jurisdiction exceeding the stipulated height or size must necessarily be vetted by an IIT or equivalent).
IITs can, at times, churn out reports with astonishing speed, much to the delight of the government. Imagine, a faculty member of IIT Bombay can be tasked with the study and submission of the status report of 447 bridges across Mumbai within six months.
Unsurprisingly, we have two bridges in the commercial capital of the second most populous country demolished on the directions of an IIT Bombay report. When in doubt, as the queen says, “Off with his head!”
Having been a visiting professor at one of the older IITs for three years and worked for over two decades with numerous IIT professors, I have seen first-hand that IIT reports are not that of the institute but of an individual faculty member.
It is not inconceivable to get completely opposing reports for a structure from different faculty members of the same IIT. That, an IIT professor once proudly said to me, speaks well of the independent and fearless mindset of the IIT professor.
While that may be true, in some areas, especially in matters of physics and mechanics, one would wish that an addition of two plus two would unfailingly yield the same result of four, especially when the stakes are high.
There is nothing 'institutional' about reports from IITs, unlike the institutional mechanisms that are followed in larger engineering organisations- government or private. In such organisations, a well-defined system exists in terms of supervision, oversight and signoff at many levels. There is room for discussion and debate and the final report that is released has usually passed multiple reviews which the organisation has to take full ownership of.
Not so in an IIT project. The work is done by the individual faculty member and is seldom subject to review (unless expressly stated by the client) by a second faculty member. Hence, the report of an IIT is oftentimes quite simply the opinion of a single IIT professor.
More importantly, a professional organisation (public or private) is legally liable for the design or report. But IITs do not feel the need to stand up to public scrutiny.
Here is what is put up by IIT Bhubaneshwar on its website. “The Institute undertakes to carry out the project as conscientiously as conditions allow, but accepts no economic responsibility should the work not lead to expected results. The Institute accepts the project on condition that the client renounces all right to claim damages for losses sustained directly or indirectly in consequence of the work done by the Institute.”
Such a disclaimer should be sufficient for any client to scurry for cover. And, yet, for project after project, the government will turn exclusively to the IITs for advice on new projects, disaster management, health of public infrastructure and much else.
Whatever happened to the Indian Railways cadre of engineers, the Indian Railways Service of Engineers (IRSE), considered to be one of the oldest and most elite of all Indian engineering cadres that manages the department of civil engineering in the Indian Railways?
It is a shame that the Indian Railways, which had one of the most comprehensive systems for inspection and maintenance (the granular “Indian Railways Way and Works Manual” was first published in 1967 and has seen numerous upgrades along the way), has capitulated to the downward spiral in our institutions and has now subcontracted its duties of inspection and audit to small time consultants or one-man armies of the IITs.
What does the Indian Railways have to say for itself when one of its own bridges (Dadar FOB) constructed in 1993 and which has barely reached midlife, is now deemed to be so heavily corroded as to be unfit to carry intended loads?
(This is first part of a two part series.)
Next: Knee-Jerk Solutions Leave Mumbai’s Lifeline Without a Spine
(Alpa Sheth is managing director of VMS Consultants Pvt Ltd, a firm with over 50 years standing in structural engineering industry. She holds a post-graduate degree from University of California, Berkeley, US. Ms Sheth has been AICTE-INAE distinguished visiting professor at IIT Madras and chairperson of the Academic Council at Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture, Mumbai. Ms Sheth is Chairperson of BIS Sub-Committee for Drafting of Tall Buildings Code for (BIS) Special Structures Sectional Committee (CED 38) and had co-drafted the recently released Code on Concrete Tall Buildings for India. Ms Sheth is co-founder and managing Trustee of Structural Engineers Forum of India -SEFI (www.sefindia.org) which has emerged as the leading national platform for more than 22,500 structural engineers to share their engineering problems, concerns and experiences and improve the built habitat.)