The swift arrests of nine people and setting up of a special investigation team to look into the colossal tragedy in Morbi on Sunday evening should reveal more details on the sudden snapping of the cable bridge that led to the killing of at least 133 people. Prima facie, there seems to have been gross negligence on the part of the private party that had recently won the contract to renovate and operate the bridge. But there are question marks over the role of the local authorities as well. The hanging bridge was built in 1887, and has been a major tourist draw for the district that is India’s most important ceramic hubs. Ajanta Oreva, a company known for making clocks, lights, and e-bikes, was awarded a contract seven months ago by the municipal corporation to renovate the bridge and operate it for a period of 15 years. The choice of the renovator itself seems odd since Ajanta Oreva doesn’t seem to have any exposure in the infrastructure sector.
If the company has indeed violated contract terms by opening the bridge in a mere five months —the contract had estimated a duration of 8-12 months for renovation—there has to be a thorough forensic analysis of the engineering involved. The company also seems to have violated safety norms by allowing nearly four times the safe capacity on to the bridge. While the bridge reportedly has a maximum capacity of 100, and the practice so far has been to allow groups of 20-25 at a time, the crowd at the time of the incident is believed to have been in excess of 400 people.
The municipal corporation seems to have failed in enforcing its remit, too. Local authorities have claimed that the bridge by the company was reopened on October 26, without any mandatory safety tests/audits conducted and clearance given by the municipal commission. In such a case, the company would indeed be culpable, but it is shocking that the municipal corporation silently stood by and allowed the company to violate basic contract conditions for four days, till the tragedy occurred. Surely it should have moved to question and penalise the company with the first reports of the bridge being reopened without the requisite safety clearance and in violation of the contract stipulation on renovation duration.
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Blame-shifting, post facto protestations from authorities, etc, seems to mark nearly all of India’s infrastructure-related disasters, be it the Posta under-construction flyover collapse in 2016 or the collapse of the foot overbridge connecting Mumbai’s iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj terminus with a busy Mumbai road in 2019, just six months after an audit had deemed it safe. The Morbi bridge collapse also brings to mind the Jharkhand cable car accident which took place in April 12. Here too, the private operator was accused of running the ropeway without an official nod from the departments concerned. Both the Morbi bridge and the Deoghar ropeway didn’t have a fitness certificate; yet they were operating without any restrictions. Morbi’s municipal authorities have said the operator was required to intimate the civic body after the bridge’s renovation was concluded and an inspection could decide whether the certificate was legitimate. Shouldn’t they have a mechanism to check whether the norms are being violated with impunity? This practice of passing the buck is tragic in itself.