MumbaiNaama: The Dark Comedy About Gokhale Bridge, Blame Game, And BMC’s Accountability

The reconstructed Gopal Krishna Gokhale Bridge and the long-existing Barfiwala flyover in Andheri are so badly misaligned that they are apart by nearly two metres. This cannot be made up, this is real. The two together were supposed to make commuting from east to west Andheri and further to Juhu a smooth and seamless drive, saving precious minutes and noxious fuel, but the misalignment means that the traffic congestion has merely moved from one spot to another.

If journalism is the first and rough draft of history capturing a society at a point in time, future historians will trawl through today’s journalism about the city, come across this bizarre story, and wonder how a misalignment between two bridges could have come to pass at a time that technology allows the voices of singers long dead to render new songs besides other seemingly impossible tasks. After the misalignment, the Gokhale Bridge has turned into a national meme. People’s humour is a shield for anger and disbelief. How else can you tell this story?

It is not a funny story at all. The Gokhale Bridge connecting eastern and western parts of Andheri and carrying lakhs of people/vehicles every day over the railway tracks, is crucial for east-west traffic at Andheri. The Barfiwala flyover was meant to move traffic from Andheri east to Juhu beyond the Gokhale bridge; the newly redone portion allowed access from and discharge at the western express highway directly in the east. At what point the story becomes bizarre is hard to say but it raises a number of questions, not the least about the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

The facts first. The extended Barfiwala flyover to connect Juhu to the highway was ready for more than a couple of years but locked for public use because the Gokhale Bridge was not ready. The pedestrian section of this bridge, originally constructed in 1975, collapsed during heavy rain on July 3, 2018 — that’s almost six years ago. The accident left two people dead and three injured. Since then, the bridge was closed to pedestrians but parts of it were open to vehicular traffic allowing the crucial east-west connectivity in Andheri. Life and traffic movement went on as it does in Mumbai — slow with excruciating delays, loads of curses for the BMC, reading about the battles that it entered into with the Western Railway authorities about the bridge, but essentially moving on the east-west alignment.

Finally, the work order for reconstructing the damaged portion of the Gokhale Bridge was issued in 2020 but work was held up due to the pandemic. The task of demolishing the dangerous parts of the bridge and relaying a studier and modern one began only in November 2021. The demolition itself was the source of much mirth and exasperation because the BMC and the railway authorities sparred over who would – or should – carry out the demolition. This is already bizarre but we Mumbaikars did not know what lay in the future.

The demolition eventually happened and, as some comedians pointed out, was a source of relief to many. Though we had to struggle to use other roundabout routes to make the east-west connection, a brand-new bridge awaited us. Then the reconstruction of the bridge began, the BMC set completion deadlines but happily flouted them, new deadlines were set again and again which brought forth Mumbai’s famous shoulder-shrug and choice cuss words, and the story looked like it would have a happy ending when the inauguration was set for February end. At this point, the misalignment was noticed. Many questions arise.

The first and fundamental question is simply about the time taken. Why does it take nearly six years — or five if we discount the pandemic year — to demolish and reconstruct a bridge that’s barely a kilometre long but is a crucial part of the east-west connector infrastructure on which lakhs depend every single day? The buck stops at the BMC’s door fair and square. Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal, widely commended for his sterling work during the pandemic, inexplicably found it difficult to get one small bridge demolished and rebuilt. This, while the grand and decidedly more difficult coastal road was being built in the sea. It speaks volumes for the civic body’s priorities and secondary treatment to basic infrastructure in the suburbs.

Why did the railway authorities delay permissions as the BMC alleges? Are lakhs of Mumbaikars to be tossed between the whims and rules of the two organisations that are supposed to work for people’s welfare? It is unpardonable that, at a time in this country when the Prime Minister repeatedly talks of speed and scale in infrastructure projects, the railway authorities and the civic body could not align themselves on a simple small bridge. This, in a nutshell, is Mumbai’s story – or that of any city in India really – where a host of agencies lord over parts of the city and its infrastructure without coordinating with each other and unmindful of the fact that while they may have their jurisdictions but people need to use the different infrastructure in one seamless journey. We, the people, should not have to worry about jurisdictions and mandates of agencies – or suffer because they do not see eye to eye.

Then comes the question about the misalignment. It is incredulous in the extreme. For two whole years that the construction was planned and executed, did no one realise that they had badly goofed up? Since it came to light, the BMC has been merrily playing the blame game. It initially kicked the can down to the railways with Chahal stating that the railways wanted an increase in the height of the bridge which ostensibly led to the gap of 1.5 to 2 metres. After the railways clarified this, the blame was shifted to agencies such as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) which had constructed the Barfiwala flyover but did not deposit its design with the BMC. You cannot make this up. No amount of blame-game will take away from the fact that the BMC goofed up — and badly so.

Lastly, who is accountable for this daylight blunder and consequent loot of public money, why have we not heard names of engineers and project in-charge executives who should ideally face penal action? Those in the government, faceless and nameless men and women in positions of great power and responsibility, get away with any degree of torture to citizens and any kind of error without paying for it. How can this be? It is yet another instance of the BMC’s classic approach of not taking accountability seriously or discharging its core responsibility. Someone has got to pay for this blunder but, you and I know, no one will. This is beyond mercy.

Citizens’ actions may make a difference here but people’s memories are short and time is at a premium. Once the alignment is somehow made — hopefully, it will be safe — all will be forgiven. Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the meticulous and learned reformist and political guru to Mahatma Gandhi, would have shuddered at the passage of these darkly comic events of a bridge that carries his name.

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