Passing through Koparkhairane station

Today – 2nd August 2013 – was my first visit to Koparkhairane. This map link will be useful for reference
In January it was my first visit to Rabale. It was a long standing desire to visit these new nodes developing in the Mumbai region and to see the quality of basic infrastructure, the look and feel and the facilities being put in place.
I was there on an invitation from Jagdeep Desai, (friend, fellow activist and Director of Lokmanya Tilak Institute of Architecture and Design Studies) to attend a meeting with the DCP (Traffic) Navi Mumbai at the college to discuss some quick solutions to the pervasive problem of potholes and solving traffic congestion in some chronic spots. So in that sense a note of caution was already announced. 
I was joined with my friend Abhijit Mehta who joined only because I promised no public transport. We arrived by cab but I went bad on my word in the return and have presumably lost a friend now. The temptation to see and experience Kopairkhairne station got the better of me.
We entered through Vashi Bridge and joined the road which passes through Vashi Sector 29 and my immediate observation was how unremarkable the area looked. The road and the immediate surroundings had a very small town feel with little of dynamism or energy you experience in Mumbai. There really doesn’t seem to be much of a soul. Ugly un-noticeable buildings, streets which do not call out with either a calm beauty to them or a throbbing buzz of human activity.
The edges of the road are a favourite observation for me and after a few meters of riding into the ‘town’ I was left disinterested. There seemed nothing ‘Navi’ about this part of Navi Mumbai. Footpaths was what I was eagerly looking for hoping that some of the new sectors would not have gone the old ways and used the opportunity of a greenfield to do a good job. Thorough disappointment. Presumably these are not the most glamorous parts of Navi Mumbai but somehow I felt that clearly these areas could do better and anyways there has to be no qualifying criteria for basic infrastructure.
Good quality affordable housing and neighbourhoods have been in a a shortage in Mumbai and these areas present the best opportunity to create viable alternatives, especially with transport linkages now having improved significantly. 
The meeting went well. The DCP is a very nice cordial person with no air to himself – out to get the work done and do what his post calls for him to do. And go beyond since it is not often that top officials meet outside their offices.
Post meeting like I said earlier I bit into temptation. A professor from another College in Navi Mumbai had brought his vehicle and offered to drop at the station since he was passing that way. Abhijit was hoping till then that I will listen to the voice of reason eventually.
Koparkhairane Station
We approached the station from the side of Shivaji Patil Udyan opposite which is the college.
The Shivaji Patil Udyan was a picture of complete disinterest – more like a development plan formality. The road is an arterial one and it was of the same disappointing width which to me is now symptomatic of the thinking of planners in Mumbai post independence and especially the ones of the past 3-4 decades. One saw wider roads being built before independence and in an era where there was  hardly any traffic and here we have ‘Navi’ Mumbai which was supposed to be learning and building over Mumbai going about bending backwards.
The road doesn’t inspire confidence to run a good bus system, parking becomes a problem with the kind of width it has and let us not even talk about pedestrians. Why cant it be just standard to have two meter footpaths on either side on all arterial roads?
The first glimpse of Koparkhairane station itself was disheartening and sad. The colours were a sickening combination of light brown, faded grey painted ages ago and the faded painting taken over by the dampness of the monsoon. For me it was almost a field study trip but I can imagine the effect on Abhijit who was part expecting to see such sights, had no intentions of  studying the station, was promised company back in a cab ride and was now left to see this ugly precinct. 
The station has three entrances on the west side from where we were approaching. Each entrance has an almost 5 meter path for vehicles to enter and footpaths on both the sides. The first entrance turned out to be a large depression which was brimming with water from the rains, to the extent that even the bottom of the pool was not visible, thus doing away with the need to guess whether we could walk from this entrance.
We moved ahead to the next entrance, here too the same inviting pool of water but manageable. Straight ahead we could see  a building with a subway and a few people passing that way suggesting that this was an entrance. There were ticket windows here but not functioning. The place looked like a run down derelict building. A few people were sitting on stairs in front of the window whom we asked about tickets and they showed a path going along the boundary of the building further ahead to what would have been the third entrance on our road route.
Thank fully there was an all weather covered path through which we walked in the rain. The condition of the landscape around made me draw comparison to disused godown areas in Reay Road. At the third entrance we saw a long line of commuters – only one ticket window was functioning. There were some new smart card machines and I used one to get a ticket – had the same not been there I would have definitely chosen a cab ride back over the long line for tickets. This is also where I parted ways with Abhijit who had enough of the station and had no intention of going into the dark wet subway which  takes commuters to the platforms.
The subway did not give a feeling of being unsafe at 4:30 but I could imagine how it would start feeling post 7pm. The whole station precinct itself would look substantially more uninviting and dangerous in the evening hours. The quality of construction overall is good but it all seems to be left as it is in a hurry after a certain stage and after that there has been no body to look after it. 
The complete lack of any activity other than people standing in the ticket line, a few having grouped for their chats and those who were either entering or exiting the station was another noticeable feature. One is used to seeing a newspaper stand, a canteen, PCO booth, maybe a general store. But the station had none, only a ghostly and abandoned feel. Even police presence was not to be seen. 
Interestingly in office I am involved with applying principles of place making to improve the conditions of August Kranti Maidan and Azad Maidan. When I see Koparkhairane I realise that this is where the principles of placemaking are needed the most. Even the basics are wanting here – is it too much to expect good lighting, not seeing cobwebs hanging from the station ceilings and walls, signage and a few snack spots?
The completely covered stations of Navi Mumbai are a big relief from the stations of Mumbai which can be very inconvenient to use in the rains. The platforms were dry and there was no need to congregate at dry spots or open the umbrella. The train came in a few minutes – 4:27 to Thane and I was off soon.
I dont know who governs the station precincts, whether CIDCO or Central Railway, which operates the train services. The station besides carrying its name carried no feature suggesting any authority which was responsible for its upkeep and operation. Something as important as the railways station and its precinct could even be the responsibility of the municipal corporation. The railways can run the trains and everything else about the stations be handled by the municipal corporation. It is anyways a common complaint of the Railways that they do not make enough revenue due to the very affordable fares that they provide. The citizens using the stations are tax payers to the municipal corporation and it should be expected that the corporation do this much for them.
There is so much more that can be done in integrating the city bus service, para transit, cycling and walking with the station precinct. At Rabale in January it was my observation that coming out of the Station on the Thane Belapur Road side, one has to cross the road to go on the other side. The subway within the station could easily have been extended under the road to avoid conflict between vehicles speeding at 60kmph and users of the station. I wonder what the situation must be on the other side of Kopairkhairne.
Urbanisation in MMR
Yes Kopairkhairne may have been a village till recent but nothing says that a village has to go through a learning curve where you do all the wrong things first, suffer for a few decades, then through some process (if it happens or be doomed to forever be stuck in that early disastrous phase of your learning curve) go through a renewal and at the end of the 21st century enjoy something which was being enjoyed even at the end of the 20th century by a lot of Mumbai. There has to be a sense of urgency about doing the right aspects of urban planning in the MMR region.
Railway Stations are such an important component of the lives of the citizens of Mumbai that they should be the focus of a lot of effort from all the wings of the government, elected or administrative. The maintenance and efforts to continuously make stations and station areas cheerful, lively, utilitarian and safe can be such a creative and satisfying exercise. And it should be made a professionally rewarding one as well to be able to attract the best of talent to lend their efforts and time to the process.
Millions of people are passing through these stations every day. It may not be possible to give them inspiring and convenient neighbourhoods, it may be difficult to improve every kilometer of road or provide a great walking environment all throughout. The MMR Region is almost 5000 sq kms. Navi Mumbai is 150 sq kms, Mumbai 437 sqkms (or so some say). The stations themselves including the influence areas must be under a sqkm each and it is the sum total of these areas where the urban planning efforts need to be seen proportionately more.
If we are to have a glorious vision for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region I think the condition of railway stations and their continuous improvement in terms of aesthetics and facilities really has to be at the top of the list. The conditions here will  be an indicator of how much is really being done for improving the city and the level to which politicians are in touch with those who elect them. 
Political and social will (and effort)
I really dont know why Ganesh Naik and the other politicians who have been ruling over this area for more than 2 decades have not felt the need for improvement. But nothing is lost and the situation can easily be turned around in one municipal corporation term. I had the pleasure of meeting Sanjeev Naik the 30 year old young Mayor of Navi Mumbai a few months ago while I was the moderator for a session and he was the Chief Guest and he inspired hope and trust. It is upto the civil society of Navi Mumbai and also Mumbai to engage with him and I feel hopeful that such an interaction can pave the way for some change.
Mumbai Metropolitan Region can be the best laboratory for urban planning and practice in India if we who pass through its portals now in this second decade choose to keep our inhibitions, fears and doubts aside and spring headlong into practice.
We hear of these big UN and World Bank studies and quotes, charts and graphics on how we are a rapidly urbanising world, we hear of the McKinsey Report on 50 percent of India being urbanised by 2030 (which is real close) and how it is these metropolitan regions which will be the big contributors to GDP and we see annual conferences and seminars. Much noise and little conversion on the ground. It is time we started holding charette’s and workshops at the railways stations and get hands on with a desirable form of urbanism in at least a few aspects. We could urgently do with an MMR Committee (or even an informal working group to start with) solely devoted to bringing all the railway stations in MMR up to date on facilities and basic comforts. Why cant parts of the Mall experience be recreated at the railways stations? 
And this is not a trivial aspect – a Marine Drive maybe receives more attention than the state of our railway stations. Mass transit is one of those pillars of urbanisation without which most other activity will collapse.
I will reach this note to elected representatives, officials, architects, planners and civil society members as an appeal to look into the conditions of the railway stations and hope to build momentum.
Things I would know
  1. Who were the planners in CIDCO or Urban Development Department who decided on the current width and configuration of the Regency Road? Names of the officials, the Secretary and the Minster then.
  2. Which year was the plan made for Koparkhairane and which year did the execution start?
  3. What existed before the city in the current format?
Would appreciate any and all information in this regard.
Interestingly the public transport route I took will soon be history. The Metro first line will resume within a year and next year the same journey will require me to go Koparkhairane-Thane on suburban rail, Thane-Ghatkopar on suburban rail, Ghatkopar-Indian Oil(Andheri) Metro and then a bus or rickshaw home. The unnecessary travel to Dadar and then backtracking to Andheri and suffering Andheri station will be done away with. A full time saving of 30 minutes.