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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > Aam Aadmi party

Aam Aadmi party

Updated on: 03 March,2024 07:24 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Sameer Surve , Arpika Bhosale | sameer.surve@mid-day.com smdmail@mid-day.com

How many people does it take to raise a critical bridge that connects two parts of a continent-sized Mumbai suburb? Five hundred citizens —sharing pictures of the work on a WhatsApp group, making an MLA accountable, cultivating spies and keeping the pressure on for 15 months

Aam Aadmi party

(Left to right) Karan Jotwani, Vipul Solanki, Prashant Gangwal, Ratanjit Gandhok, Minoo Sukhia, Dhaval Shah, Jayant Mehta, Zoru Bhathena, (front row) Jayant Mehta, Dinesh Mehta and Neha Ghai belong to the 500-member strong citizens group that followed up relentlessly with civic authorities to ensure the completion of Andheri’s Gopal Krishna Gokhale bridge which opened on February 25. Pic/Nimesh Dave

On the evening of November 7, 2022, Juhu homemaker Neha Ghai created a WhatsApp group with seven people she thought would care. She named it GOKHALE BRIDGE-ASAP. They also lived in and around Andheri, and seemed the sorts to help her with a cause dear to her heart. By November 9, the group had swollen to 500 people.


“I didn’t think much about what the group could accomplish when I created it,” says Ghai as we stand at the mouth of the freshly inaugurated 80-metre Gopal Krishna Gokhale bridge on February 26. “Initially, the group largely stuck to updates such as when the bridge will open, or what a minister said…”


(from left) Vispi Irani, Neha Ghai and Daisy Irani are part of the 500 residents in Andheri who relentlessly pursued the BMC authorities and their local MLA to complete the Gopal Krishna Gokhale Bridge construction within 15 months.. Pics/NImesh Dave(from left) Vispi Irani, Neha Ghai and Daisy Irani are part of the 500 residents in Andheri who relentlessly pursued the BMC authorities and their local MLA to complete the Gopal Krishna Gokhale Bridge construction within 15 months.. Pics/NImesh Dave


On November 22, 2022, the bridge that poured commuters into the arterial road connecting east and west chambers of the European-country-sized suburb was shut down due to structural instability.

The Western Railways was tasked with taking down the bridge, and the BMC with building it up again. The initial date of completion was set at May 2023 but was moved up five times more, with August, October, and finally December, all in the year 2023. The first 2024 deadline was set in early February and was again moved ahead to the end of the same month— due to lack of information on the progress by local representatives and apathy from the civic body. By mid-2023, Ghai’s concern slowly simmered into anxiety and boiled over as rage.

Inspired by citizens movements in the US where she earlier lived, Neha Ghai started the WhatsApp group after her husband spent hours stuck on the road to and back from work and it began to affect their family life Inspired by citizens movements in the US where she earlier lived, Neha Ghai started the WhatsApp group after her husband spent hours stuck on the road to and back from work and it began to affect their family life 

Andheri East houses major factories and offices in industrial areas such as MIDC, Saki Naka and SEEPZ. Then there’s the airport. Andheri’s West residents from Four and Seven Bungalows, Lokhandwala Complex, Juhu-Vile Parle Development Scheme and Juhu itself cross over to it, mostly in private cars and two wheelers every day.

Daily commuters like Ghai’s husband, Jasraj, spent over two hours extra on the road, per day as he was forced to go to Jogeshwari and then head to Goregaon. Earlier, this would take an hour. Others were driving as far out as Jogeshwari and Vile Parle to get to work, school, college and for cancer treatment at Kokilaben Hospital. Jasraj, finally, began battling peak hour local train commute.

Officials informed the residents that a delay in procuring steel girders from a manufacturing factory in Ambala that got flooded in last year’s monsoon  had led to a hurdleOfficials informed the residents that a delay in procuring steel girders from a manufacturing factory in Ambala that got flooded in last year’s monsoon 
had led to a hurdle

“Ours is a love marriage,” Ghai says shyly. “It may sound funny but when Jasraj would come home exhausted and irritable from spending time in traffic every day, it got to me. ‘Why are we taxpayers taking this lying down?’ I thought. Staying mum was no longer an option.”

The Ghais had lived in Sacramento, USA, from 2006 to 2012, and watched citizen participation mobilise local authorities. Their American neighbours banded together often to hold representatives accountable when civic works were delayed. “We cannot keep shrugging our shoulders when we are given deadlines after deadlines,” she adds.

Local MLA Ameet Satam, also added on the group, was instrumental in getting  got the State government to declare the bridge work as “critical” to speed things up Local MLA Ameet Satam, also added on the group, was instrumental in getting the State government to declare the bridge work as “critical” to speed things up 

Ghai reached out to her brother, who knew their MLA Ameet Satam; He was added to the WhatsApp group. This emboldened other residents such as Vispi Irani to join the fight.

The 55-year-old Andheri entrepreneur called for a residents meeting at his Parsi colony, Bharucha Baug, on November 12. His call to arms read: “Friends, let’s see the way forward. We are equally responsible as citizens to not have taken up this matter with the authorities for the last four years. Instead, we kept using the single-lane Gokhale bridge silently, without realising that portion of the bridge was also getting dilapidated and would give way at some point. So, we too are equally responsible for today’s woes… We should have been equally alert when one portion of the bridge came down sadly, we too shrugged it off… (sic)”

(from left) It was the vigilance of the residents that revealed how the west side footpath was for three people, narrowing down in the railway portion, and then allowing only two people to walk side by side: The east side footpath is the narrowest, allowing space for just one person(from left) It was the vigilance of the residents that revealed how the west side footpath was for three people, narrowing down in the railway portion, and then allowing only two people to walk side by side: The east side footpath is the narrowest, allowing space for just one person

Everybody rose to the call. The first meeting of Bharucha Baug residents was live-streamed on Facebook and Instagram, and the link shared on the WhatsApp 
to be forwarded. 

“I was three-years-old when traffic and street lights were installed on the first bridge,” bellows Irani over the sound of peak evening traffic on the bridge. We’re meeting a section of the citizen crusaders who got the bridge to be completed. Irani reminds us that there were legions more who kept the pressure on the BMC to get the work done. 

In July 2018, a part of the railway bridge fell on to the tracks at Andheri, killing two. Post this, only one lane of the bridge was operational. File pic/Rane Ashish

Soon, every small update from the bridge construction site trickled onto the WhatsApp group; all traffic inconveniences were discussed and taken up with the authorities. MLA Satam, kept in the loop, began to bring these up and follow them through consistently at the BMC head office. He’d post updates, and even got the chief minister Eknath Shinde to visit the site on December 10, 2023.

In December 2022, Dhaval Shah, co-founder of Andheri Lokhandwala Oshiwara Citizen’s Association, represented the encumbered residents and met with BMC’s civic engineers at the Worli offices to know the way forward. It was the first of many meetings that kept up a system of accountability.

In July 2018, a part of the railway bridge fell on to the tracks at Andheri, killing two. Post this, only one lane of the bridge was operational. File pic/Rane AshishIn July 2018, a part of the railway bridge fell on to the tracks at Andheri, killing two. Post this, only one lane of the bridge was operational. File pic/Rane Ashish

“We were told that it would be done by May 2023,” says Shah, “and shown BMC tenders [from two years prior], those to build the portion of the bridge that came under the railways, as well as maps and diagrams of the proposed bridge. We were assured that the May deadline would be honoured.”  That deadline gave way to another post-monsoon one in August, and then to October, and finally December all in the year 2023, to the residents’ dismay. Finally, the first 2024 deadline was set in early February, which was finally pushed to February 25, when it was completed.

For their September 2023 meeting with the BMC, Shah took along two civil engineers to decode and verify what the civic officials were stating. “Our friends said that the rate of progress shown in the paperwork and the one on-ground did not match,” says Shah. The excuses included the steel-factory in Ambala (Haryana), that was to frame the girders being flooded during the monsoon.

While Shah and gang kept the pressure up, Ghai and others went to the site each Sunday to log photo updates,  even at night during critical stages of construction. “I was here when they launched the girder at midnight,” she says. “I took videos of them hauling it into place and updated the group.” A girder launching is critical because then it’s easy to know the time frame of the completion, since it helps in assembling and welding other components to it.

As restlessness grew, the campaign went for visibility: Housing society gates wore banners saying, ‘Reopen Gokhale Bridge before May 2023’; Cars had stickers that read, ‘Waiting for Gokhale Bridge to Reopen’. 

In October, Satam felt squeezed enough to declare rebuilding of Gokhale bridge as ‘Critical infrastructure project’. This compelled the BMC to clear hutments at the west end of the bridge (and provide residents with alternate housing) in 84 days to make way for the cranes that would lift and place heavy components onto the bridge. 

In November, a letter was sent to Chief Minister Eknath Shinde seeking his intervention and attention for timely completion of the project. Shinde had been surveying critical civic projects in the city. “Your leadership can make a significant difference in alleviating the struggles faced by residents on a daily basis,” the appeal said.

“We also filed an online petition on Change.org and gathered almost 11,000 signatures. This provided a major push as the matter remained highlighted continuously,” says 62-year-old Dinesh Mehta, who runs a taxi service and lives in JB Nagar. “Some city bridges have been stuck for years; we didn’t want Gokhale bridge to repeat history. There is no need for smaller bridges to face delay.”

As 2023 was winding up, the group got creative. A network of informants was formed for on-ground updates. “We didn’t want to get fooled again,” says Shah. “We knew what was going on every day.” 

Sixty-year-old Daisy Irani of Bharucha Baug says she busied herself with being a pain in BMC’s neck. “We began visiting the site, arranging meetings with authorities and painstakingly following up each step to keep up the momentum,” she says with toss of a silver braid in a mop of black.

It all coalesced into persistent pressure. “There are so many of us,” says Ghai, “Every time any of us passed the bridge, we would post an update. The continuity helped keep us abreast of the situation on the ground. If the work stopped, we’d alert our MLA, who would promptly take it up with the authorities and have it restarted. As part of the group, he was the target of bashing, but never lost his cool. He continues to be in the group and supports us by getting updates and involving higher authorities.” 

Speaking to mid-day, Satam confesses that the pressure tactics worked; he has also found new supporters in his constituency with this evident involvement. “The public pressure kept everyone on their toes and ensured reconstruction in a record time of 14 months,” Satam tells us.

The feeling of empowerment is infectious. “I have decided to create awareness among other residents of my locality about the role and consequences of public representatives. Elections are due and it will be mutually beneficial,” says Mehta.

The next target is to meet the year-end deadline for the completion of the entire project, which will be the second lane of the bridge that has again faced delays due to the delivery of steel for the second girder being erected to the farmers protest. “This is just half a victory,” says Daisy with quiet resolve. “The Gokhale bridge group has given us confidence that if we come together, our voices can make change happen.”

The magic ingredients, says the other Irani, is to not lose sight of the larger picture and manage expectations. “People tend to get side-tracked on such groups, squabbling over trivial things,” he says, “The day the bridge reopened, the group had messages like, ‘Stuck on the bridge for half-an-hour’. The traffic police are still learning how to manage the vehicular flow.”

Veteran journalist and founder-editor of Question of Cities, Smruti Koppikar has been an ardent chronicler of the city. We ask her about the history of citizen participation. “Citizens movements are still strong, many of them are online, but the offline ones are perhaps less visible to the English-speaking elites now.” At the same time, she feels that Gokhale bridge was more about the civic authorities’ apathy that lead to forced citizen participation. “I’m not sure that the Gokhale bridge is an ideal example of citizen engagement. It is, in my opinion, a classic example of the utter disregard and total non-accountability that the BMC has towards citizens. If citizens had to engage to get work done, it further shows the BMC’s inefficiency. The change in the last few decades is this—people have to now struggle, agitate, advocate, campaign for the most basic infrastructure such as fixing potholes, repairing bridges, ensuring footpaths, instead of engaging at the policy level,” she adds.

Despite all the challenges, the WhatsApp group is abuzz with excitement of a task finished. Last Thursday, another few from the group gathered on site to celebrate the victory. Ghai was on point with a packet of kaju katri. They stuffed each other’s face with mithai, while curious motorists exchanged glances. 

Inputs from Rajendra B Aklekar

4
No. of times that the completion deadline was pushed forward by the BMC

The Gokhale problem

Originally built in 1975, a part of the bridge that came under the Railway jurisdiction, collapsed on Andheri station in July 2018 due to corrosion and overload, killing two people. That very month, the then Union Railways minister Piyush Goyal ordered an audit of 445 bridge structures crossing or adjacent to railway tracks. This was also a year after the Elphinstone stampede when the width of bridges on the whole was called into question. The audit team comprising professionals from IIT-Bombay and engineers from Central and Western Railways, and the BMC audited structures near the railways that included foot-over-bridge and rail-over-bridges. 

Gokhale bridge was kept partially open after the incident as the BMC and Railways tried to demolish, repair and upgrade it in parts. In November 2022, it was declared unsafe and even the single lane that had remained operational since 2018 was closed. Demolition began in December 2022 and it took four months for the final girder to be taken down in March 2023

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