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  Opinion   Columnists  02 Nov 2022  Patralekha Chatterjee | Safety, maintenance key in infra, other projects

Patralekha Chatterjee | Safety, maintenance key in infra, other projects

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com
Published : Nov 3, 2022, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Nov 3, 2022, 12:00 am IST

What are the lessons in the wake of one of the worst public safety tragedies in India?

Rescue personnel conduct search operations after a bridge across the river Machchhu collapsed at Morbi in Gujarat on October 31 (Photo by Sam PANTHAKY / AFP)
 Rescue personnel conduct search operations after a bridge across the river Machchhu collapsed at Morbi in Gujarat on October 31 (Photo by Sam PANTHAKY / AFP)

Every major political party in India tells you that infrastructure is the backbone of the economy and big spends on infrastructure will boost growth, create jobs, generate happiness and so on. But when and where did you hear proper maintenance of that infrastructure being a key part of any stump speech or political manifesto?

When was the last time that a political leader on an infrastructure inauguration spree spoke out unambiguously on the government’s accountability within public-private partnerships (PPP)? Or the government’s role as a regulator in enforcing safety? What happens when partners in PPP projects blame each other? What happens when such lapses happen repeatedly, and one disaster follows another as in a ghoulish version of Campbell's Soup Cans, the iconic painting by American artist Andy Warhol?

Where does the buck stop?

These questions are very relevant today as we try to unpack the stories of bridge collapse, roof collapse, roads caving in, dams breaching and the many preventable disasters that India has witnessed, including the most recent — the collapse of the colonial-era Morbi cable bridge. At the time of writing, the death toll is 135; the search operations are continuing — so tragic and so needless.

A lot has been written already about the Morbi bridge collapse. More will be written in the days to come. While we wait for the findings of the promised deep and exhaustive investigation, we are also internally processing the visual clips of how the hospital, where many of the injured are being treated, got cleaned, painted, and dramatically spruced up ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Morbi on Tuesday.

That may be a side story but it sledgehammers home an essential point — that hospital administration and healthcare can’t be reduced to bursts of cleanliness and hygiene for special occasions. They must be well-maintained all the time. Otherwise, there are consequences for patients, sometimes catastrophic, as we have seen time and again. Ditto with bridges and other infrastructure.

What are the lessons in the wake of one of the worst public safety tragedies in India? How do we ensure that there isn’t another bridge collapse or house collapse or road cave-in? Rescue, relief and compensation are the need of the hour, but an analysis of a disaster must focus equally on the state of disaster preparedness at the site and measures being put in place to ensure there is no repeat. All three are critical.

There are key questions that are of legitimate concern to ordinary citizens. The answers to many of these should be readily available and are independent of the investigation.

For example, from day one, we were told that there were around 500 people on the century-old suspension bridge over the Machchhu river, but who heard the local authorities put a figure on the carrying capacity of the bridge? That figure should have been available with the local administration. For an ordinary citizen, watching the grim images on the television screen, it was also astounding to hear that a company which positions itself as a clockmaker and LED bulb manufacturer, and whose website makes no mention of any prior expertise in bridge renovation, was entrusted to renovate the Morbi cable bridge. Why?

We also know by now that the company did not procure the mandatory “fitness certificate” from the Morbi municipal authorities. The latter says the bridge was opened to the public without their knowledge. Which brings me to the issue of procedural lapse and government accountability within the framework of a public-private partnership. The Morbi bridge was a major landmark. The renovation work had been going on for months. How is it that during a festive season, when crowds are expected to gather in large numbers, the bridge was opened to the public without the top brass of any government agency in the area being aware of it? What does that say about overall security? We also hear that clock manufacturer Oreva, which got the contract for renovating the bridge, subcontracted it to another company. If this is true, what is the role of the government and what is the regulatory framework in place to ensure safety in cases of contractors outsourcing their work to others?

What monitoring mechanisms were in place to ensure that crowds did not go beyond the carrying capacity of the bridge?

What were local authorities and the local political leadership of the BJP at the helm of affairs in Gujarat doing to ensure that procedural lapses did not take place in the renovation work?

Morbi and Gujarat are currently in the news. But procedural lapses, negligence and scant attention to safety issues are not confined to any one state or region. There are numerous examples of India’s regulators failing to prevent fatal lapses in infrastructure projects.

In 2018, part of Kolkata's Majerhat bridge collapsed, leading to three deaths and many injuries. Last month, a road cave-in in Bengaluru’s Yelahanka area led to a collision between a car and a bike, killing a 24-year-old young man. In July, a four-lane expressway in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, inaugurated by the Prime Minister, collapsed at many places soon after following heavy rain. We know that climate change has made erratic and extreme weather events a lot more frequent. Given that, what steps had been taken to make sure that large craters did not pop up on a brand-new expressway?

For the BJP, which calls the shots at the Centre and in several states, there are key lessons. In its 2019 manifesto during the last general election, the BJP promised: “By 2024, we will make a capital investment of Rs 100 lakh crores in the infrastructure sector.” Promises must explicitly talk about maintenance and safety as well.

Even an organisation like the World Bank acknowledges that the government’s responsibility continues in PPP arrangements because “citizens will continue to hold the government accountable for quality of utility services”.

Disasters typically trigger blame-gaming and name-calling. At the end, it is the ordinary citizen who suffers the most. Preventable disasters keep happening because of an unholy confluence of corruption, collusion, and callousness. A new bridge, a new hospital, a new road means little unless they are well-constructed with safety clearances and well- maintained.

We have tolerated this for far too long. Now is the time to speak up loudly. Each time a new infrastructure project is being inaugurated, citizens must ask about maintenance, safety and most crucially, the chain of accountability in place.

Whether it is the festive or the election season, safety is central to any infrastructure project.

Tags: narendra modi, bridge collapse, andy warhol, morbi cable bridge