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Majerhat bridge collapse: Shoddy probe, little accountability, nasty politics make infrastructure a perennial casualty

Majerhat bridge collapse: Shoddy probe, little accountability, nasty politics make infrastructure a perennial casualty

The most telling detail about the Majerhat bridge collapse in Kolkata lies far away from the bridge itself.

It’s in another flyover, another collapse, from another time.

In 2016 a portion of the Vivekananda flyover collapsed in Kolkata killing at least 26 people. The collapse of the Majerhat bridge brought that flyover back to our short attention spans.

What happened to that case? Wondered Kolkatans. The short answer is not much. The local MLA managed to win re-election despite post-collapse jitters. The two government officials who were arrested still have no chargesheet filed against them. According to the media, 10 officials of Hyderabad-based private company IVRCL were chargesheeted. Four others, hired by IVRCL from other companies, were booked but not chargesheeted. Everyone is out on bail, out of sight, out of mind. What about the report that building syndicates had supplied poor quality materials? The syndicates continue their turf wars unabated. The government has not yet acted on any of the proposals about whether to demolish the flyover or not.

Then, as in now, the focus was on politics rather than infrastructure. In both cases, Mamata Banerjee was out of town when it happened. In 2016 she was addressing a rally in Midnapore, a few hours outside Kolkata. She rushed back and got there ironically before the emergency cranes that could lift the humungous girders made it to the accident site. This time she was in Darjeeling and unable to return because there are no flights in the evening.

But she sent a message: “Our team is focused on relief and rescue work. Our priority is relief and rescue. Rest of the investigation will be done later.” That’s the first manoeuvre in ducking blame, the plea not to politicise. Of course, the first priority after a disaster is relief and rescue. The problem is the “investigation” quickly gets buried and goes nowhere. Nor is one disaster enough of a wake-up call to prevent other disasters. In the case of Majerhat bridge, it now transpires that the bridge’s safety had been a concern for a while. The Telegraph reports a safety audit had been done after the 2016 flyover collapse. It had warned that it was carrying more load than it could bear. The PWD even knew the reason. The surface had been re-laid year after year, making it heavier and heavier. Even the tramlines from the discontinued tram service there had not been removed presumably because that would have been costlier and more time-consuming. Some of those tramlines are now jutting out of the mangled bridge as grim reminders that there is no short cut to safety.

Majerhat is a little different from the Vivekananda flyover in 2016. That was a flyover under construction. It was not part of anyone’s daily commute yet. Majerhat is an old and major connector. As soon as it happened my social media timeline was filled with people who had just crossed the bridge hours ago or yesterday or were about to cross it later that evening. Majerhat brought home in stark relief that it could easily have been any of us. Even Sourav Ganguly said he had crossed the bridge two hours before the collapse. “I should thank my stars. What can I say? Accidents like this happen. You cannot do anything,” he told the media.

But you can. This is not a cyclone or a tsunami. This is a man-made disaster. This is about poor maintenance. Whether it’s Majerhat bridge in Kolkata or Andheri bridge in Mumbai or that bridge on the Ballabhgarh-Sohna Road in Faridabad, our infrastructure is creaky and old. Way back in 2013 Caravan magazine had reported a horror story about the state of India’s bridges. It said that between 2008 and 2012, approximately Rs 8.9 billion was allocated by the ministry and states to maintain 93,000 bridges all over India. That worked out to about Rs 19,000 per bridge per year. “There simply isn’t enough money to ensure that roads and bridges are checked regularly,” writes Caravan. So the ministry has little idea which bridge is on the verge of failure and even if it falls it can point its finger at someone else. For example, if a vehicle was carrying heavy goods, the transportation company is made liable. “Not only is the testing of its bridges outsourced by the company, so is the liability,” writes Caravan.

We can already see that happening in Majerhat. There were already fingers pointed at the Metro railway doing piling work in the area, something Mamata mentioned. The Metro railway has quickly denied its work played any role in a mid-span failure, pointing out that the RCC girders were very old. The BJP is smelling a political opportunity here with Mamata’s former number 2 and now BJP leader Mukul Roy trying to pin “complete responsibility” on her for the incident. But ultimately we know who will be found responsible for this disaster. It will be that all-purpose Indian scapegoat known as nobody.

The fact is maintenance is not a sexy political issue even though it’s a life and death issue. Which political party has ever campaigned on something as dull as maintenance? They would rather campaign on the promise of building giant statues that nobody needs and bullet trains and triple-decker flyovers. Or making Kolkata into London. Now the morbid joke going around Kolkata says, like London Bridge in that nursery rhyme, our bridges too are falling down. Soon it will be Durga Puja and the government will pump crores into neighbourhood clubs for the extravaganza and Majerhat will largely be remembered for the delays and snarls it causes in the Puja traffic jams.

Meanwhile, many of us will dutifully mark ourselves safe on Facebook without stopping to think that when bridges like Majerhat collapse none of us are really safe at all.

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