Rajat Sharma

Morbi collapse: The guilty must be punished

akb fullEven as mothers continued to sob over the death of their little ones in Sunday’s footbridge collapse in Gujarat’s Morbi town, more facts came to light about sheer negligence and chicanery on part of officials responsible for renovation, security check and operation. In one family, there were 12 bodies laid out for cremation. Thirty-three out of 135 declared dead, were children aged one to ten years. Among those dead were 44 teenagers in the age group 11 to 20 years. More than 75 persons are still in hospital. These facts are heart rending.

The suspension bridge was reopened to public five days before its collapse. It was closed for renovation for seven months. India TV reporters tried to find out why it collapsed within less than 100 hours. Some startling facts emerged. The local administration says, the renovation and management of the bridge was given to a private company on 15 years lease, but the company did not obtain any fitness certificate before reopening it to public. In other words, it can be assumed that the local administration had no knowledge about the reopening of the bridge. But facts nail this lie.

Throughout Morvi town, for several days, a massive campaign was launched by the management company about its reopening, the owner of the company opened the bridge amidst fanfare along with his family, and people of the town knew that the bridge has been reopened. But the local administration says, it was kept in the dark. The natural question that arises: Why didn’t the local administration take action, as no fitness certificate had been given? Were the officials waiting for a disaster to happen?

In my primetime show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Monday night, India TV reporters showed in detail how the company that was supposed to renovate the 143-year-old suspension bridge, played with safety by welding rusted portions of steel wires. The proofs clearly show that it was not culpable homicide not amounting to murder, but an act of deliberate mass murder.

The suspension bridge, built during British rule in 1879, was 233 metre long and four and a half feet wide. In March this year, Morvi Municipality handed over the bridge to Oreva group of companies on 15 years’ lease. The company was responsible for maintenance, cleaning, safety and ticket collection. From March till October, the bridge underwent renovation. It was claimed that Rs 2 crore was spent on renovation.

On Gujarati New Year Day (Oct 25), the bridge was ‘inaugurated’ by the granddaughter of the company owner Jaisukhbhai Patel. On Saturday, Patel held a press conference, where he claimed that the renovated bridge was now strong and sturdy, and nobody can shake it for the next 8 to 10 years. He also claimed that this bridge would be an attraction for all NRI Gujaratis visiting Morbi, and at night, the bridge will be lighted to accommodate more visitors. All these claims were being made at a time when no safety audit was conducted, nor was any clearance taken from the municipality. As a big crowd gathered on Sunday afternoon, nearly 500 tickets were sold, but the capacity of the bridge was maximum 100 persons.

India TV reporter Pawan Nara checked the remnants of the broken suspension bridge on Monday and found that in the name of renovation, only the flooring was changed. Only some cosmetic changes were made. The steel suspension wires that balance the weight on the bridge were rusted. At several places, the rusting steel wires were welded with iron rods. It was strange how the bridge withstood the weight for four days prior to its collapse.

The Oreva group of companies, manufactures watches, calculators, home appliances, ceramic tiles and LED bulbs, and it had no previous experience in making bridges, roads or civil engineering. The sheer negligence displayed in the hurried reopening of the bridge proved fatal. The rusted suspension wires were given a colour paint to give it a new look. When our reporter inspected the collapsed portion of the bridge, he was surprised to find rusted and bent nut bolts and clips. These clips and bolts were unable to withstand huge pressure of weight, leading to the collapse.

Sandeep Singh, the chief officer of Morbi municipality says, he had no knowledge about the material used for renovation, nor did the company intimate the municipality about this. Morbi Police has so far arrested nine persons including three security guards, two ticket booking clerks, two contractors and two managers of Oreva company. The Inspector General of Police, Rajkot Range, claimed that the collapse is being probed “scientifically” and those found guilty will not be spread. The fact is, no action has been taken against senior officials of the company and the municipality.

The work of the municipality does not end by leasing out the bridge to a private party. Did any senior official visit the spot and check whether the bridge was being renovated properly or not? Why was the owner of the company not interrogated by police? Already Special Investigation Team and Forensic Science Laboratory officials have inspected the spot. The forensic team was surprised to find that the suspension wires of the bridge were so weak that they could be easily bent with hands.

There is not an iota of doubt that there was gross negligence on part of the company that carried out renovation work. When former Gujarat deputy CM Nitin Patel was asked about this, he replied that there was no role of the state government at any stage, from renovation to reopening. He said, the reasons why the municipality gave the lease to the Company will be known only after probe.

It is easy for politicians and officials to say that those found guilty will not be spared, but think about those families who have lost their dear ones. Rajkot MP Mohan Kundariya lost 12 relatives in this collapse. Eight members of a family met their watery graves. All four friends who had gone for a Sunday outing, lost their lives. Their bodies were cremated together at Morbi cremation ground.

Of course, Gujarat police, NDRF, SDRF, army, air force and naval teams swung into action after the collapse. Nine persons have been arrested. But questions remain as to why the owner of the company and his senior officials have not been named in the FIR. The lease agreement was signed between the company owner and district collector. Who were the officials who allowed the bridge to be reopened to public without any safety check? Did the company which renovated the bridge has previous experience? All these questions need answers.

The impression should not go that the government is trying to shield guilty persons. If such an impression gains ground, it gives a handle to political opponents to grind their own axe. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited Morbi and met the families of victims, must ensure that the entire matter should be investigated and the guilty must be punished.

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