Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: No apologies, no resignations | The Financial Express

Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: No apologies, no resignations

There could be interesting parallels between the Kolkata bridge collapse and the Morbi bridge collapse.

Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: No apologies, no resignations
Officials use machinery to remove the debris of a pedestrian cable bridge that collapsed in Morbi town of western state Gujarat, India, Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. The century-old cable suspension bridge collapsed into the river Sunday evening, sending hundreds plunging in the water, officials said. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

On March 31, 2016, an under-construction flyover on Vivekananda Road in Kolkata collapsed, killing 27 people, mostly construction workers. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was appalled and shocked. He said, and these are his exact words translated into English:

“The bridge has fallen. This is not an act of God but an act of fraud. It is certainly an act of God to the extent that the people have come to know during the election about the kind of government you have been running. God has conveyed a message to the people that today this bridge has fallen and tomorrow she will finish off the whole state. God has sent this message to save this (state)”.

On October 26, 2022, a 143-year old suspension bridge in Morbi, Gujarat, across the Machchu river, that had been closed for seven months for ‘repair and renovation’ was opened to the public. A suspension bridge in a town is rare; it is usually found in a mountainous area. It was always a tourist attraction and, when it was re-opened on a day coinciding with the Diwali festival and the Gujarati New Year, it naturally attracted a large number of visitors. On Sunday, October 30, the bridge collapsed. The death toll was at least 135, including 53 children.

Truth under debris

The only concern on Sunday-Monday was to rescue the survivors. Many were indeed rescued, mostly by the local people including about 100 Muslim youth belonging to a neighbourhood called Makrani Vas. After Monday, there were no survivors, only dead bodies were retrieved. Questions were not asked on Sunday or Monday, and that was the right thing to do. But questions cannot be buried forever under the debris of the fallen bridge. As the ‘facts’ began to trickle in, questions — and more questions — are being raised. These are pertinent questions. Here is a sample of the questions (and the likely true answers in italics):

Was a tender floated to choose the contractor who will carry out the repairs and renovation? Most likely, no.

Who was responsible to appoint the contractor? Most likely, the Morbi Municipal Council with the approval of the Urban Development department of the state government.

Was there a structural engineering report on the state of the bridge and a blueprint to carry out the necessary repairs and renovation? Most likely, no. So far, neither the state government nor the Morbi Municipal Council nor the police has disclosed if there were any reports or plans.
Clock-maker to contractor

Also Read: Across the aisle by P Chidambaram: Head buried in the sand

Was the contractor qualified to carry out the work? Most likely, no. The contractor was a company called Oreva, a clock-maker (in Morbi town famous for its clocks) and almost certainly did not have the technical qualifications or previous experience to repair bridges. Oreva sub-contracted the work to Dev Prakash Fabrication Ltd.

Were repairs and renovation actually carried out? Most likely, no. According to preliminary evidence presented by the investigating agency before the local Court, it appears that the rusted cables were only “polished and painted” and not replaced; and the flooring was changed to heavier aluminum planks.

Did the contractor obtain the permission of the authorities to re-open the bridge to the public? No. The Municipal authorities and the Police deny any knowledge of the re-opening or giving any permission. After the alleged ‘repairs’, no fitness certificate was sought or given.

What was the business arrangement? Most likely, a sweet heart deal where Oreva would bear the cost of the repairs and renovation (not estimated) and collect fees from the visitors for 15 years without any interference from the Municipal Council or the government.

God and the message

There could be interesting parallels between the Kolkata bridge collapse and the Morbi bridge collapse. In the Kolkata tragedy, 16 persons were arrested on charges of culpable homicide and all of them were soon released on bail. Among them were persons representing the contractor and the sub-contractors. A 3,500-page chargesheet was filed in parts and it was planned to add more pages. It was alleged that the engineering drawings had not been vetted by any independent authority. The chargesheet alleged that failed steel materials (that did not pass the impact value test) were knowingly used. The nuts, bolts and sand used were of poor quality. Sections of the media had insinuated that the accident was due to corruption. And there was a failure of supervision. After all these exertions, the trial has not started after 6 years! With a few minor changes, all of the above failures may apply to the Morbi tragedy.

After the incident, there were the usual arrests of minor functionaries (not the owners of the contractor or the sub-contractor companies), the usual statements of shock and sympathy led by the Prime Minister, the usual visits to the hospital (which, overnight, got a new coat of paint to welcome the PM), the usual announcement of compensation, the usual promise of an independent and thorough enquiry, and the usual silence on resignation.

The word ‘accountability’ is absent in India’s political system of governance. After the tragedy, no one apologised, no one offered to resign and, as the cynics would say, in all likelihood no one will be held accountable and punished. If God is listening — to borrow the words of Mr Modi — will God send a message to the people of Gujarat?

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First published on: 06-11-2022 at 05:15 IST