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  Opinion   Columnists  08 Nov 2022  Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Any corner can be cut in a ‘land of make-believe’

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Any corner can be cut in a ‘land of make-believe’

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Nov 9, 2022, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Nov 9, 2022, 12:00 am IST

The handful FIRs that were filed in the Morbi bridge collapse illustrates that there is no credible mechanism to punish the guilty

The Morbi bridge disaster points to a much bigger flaw. It represents a widespread phenomenon of governments ignoring those who have neither money nor clout. (Photo: AFP)
 The Morbi bridge disaster points to a much bigger flaw. It represents a widespread phenomenon of governments ignoring those who have neither money nor clout. (Photo: AFP)

Heaven help India if the Morbi bridge collapse reflects the so-called “Gujarat model” that we are constantly urged to emulate. Actually, the disaster points to a much bigger flaw. It represents a widespread phenomenon of governments ignoring those who have neither money nor clout. As the economist-diplomat J.K. Galbraith quotes: “It’s the same the whole world over/It’s the poor what gets the blame/It’s the rich what gets the pleasure/Isn’t it a blooming shame?”

Time was when India promised to be the exception. Indians proudly recall that amidst an acute shortage of foodgrain, Jawaharlal Nehru had famously announced that he would hang black-marketers from the nearest lamp-post. Of course, no black-marketer was ever hanged or even seriously prosecuted. On the contrary, it became the fashion indirectly to whitewash black-market operators by blaming not only famines but all mishaps on the wicked British colonialists.

The Bhopal gas tragedy in December 1984, the world’s worst chemical disaster, may even have strengthened the sense of victimhood based on race and colour. So, the simple folk of Lansdowne in Uttarakhand are happily changing their town’s name to Kalon Danda, meaning “black mountain” in Garhwali, under the impression that this cosmetic triviality will wipe out “Barah sau saal ki gulami” (1,200 years of servitude) and restore the idyllic “Ram Rajya” that propagandists say flourished in pre-colonial days.

Whether or not Ram Rajya existed, the current obsession with digital India trumping the G-20 nations, including China, has helped to erode India’s traditional sense of balance. Rudyard Kipling, no admirer of the Hindu ethic, wrote that “so long as there is a morsel to divide in India, neither priest nor beggar starves”. That India did not need to boast of Asia’s two richest men thriving on the surrounding squalor. It did not bask in the glory of immigrant achievements abroad while refusing to acknowledge the distress that forces millions of Indians to become non-resident every year in the first place. It did not delude itself that crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an impoverished world sees India as its saviour.

India is becoming a land of make-believe and corner-cutting. The miles of electric wires looped and knotted in huge bundles — the cause of innumerable urban fires — in every street remind us that any corner that can be cut will be cut. Road-building is another giant conspiracy at the public cost. A newspaper survey confirmed that when a new road is laid, the inspectors check the depth of the pitch only at prearranged spots. No wonder huge craters soon appear, causing accidents and deaths.

Technically, India qualifies as the world’s largest democracy. But the quality of governance hardly bears out the stirring “of the people, by the people, for the people” pledge of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. Few politicians honour campaign commitments or are accountable to voters. The voting mechanism can certainly mete out retributive justice as in 1977 and 1980, but, normally, too many other factors — money power, caste/community loyalty, political pressure, patronage, etc — intervene in polls for grievances to be focused. The right of recall, which was meant to check defections, is easily avoided.

Accountability is alien to hierarchical societies. The Brahmin (or his contemporary equivalent) does not explain his actions or justify himself to the Sudra (or his contemporary equivalent). Friends and families of the thousands who perished in the Union Carbide leak and many of the more than 500,000 Bhopal residents who were exposed to the deadly methyl isocyanate gas complained in media interviews of not receiving the promised compensation. The handful of persons against whom First Information Reports were filed in the Morbi bridge collapse also illustrates that there is no credible mechanism to identify and punish the guilty.

Given this mismanagement, it’s a wonder really that there are not more mishaps. At least 5,000 people died in the 2005 Maharashtra floods. Although caused by the eighth heaviest rainfall ever recorded in 24 hours, they were aggravated by a drainage system that was as antiquated as the Morbi bridge. Delhi politicians trade accusations while the national capital suffers as the world’s most polluted city. The Uphaar cinema fire in June 1997 killed 59 people and injured another 103.

Barely a year after Bhopal, the Oleum gas leak involving Shriram Foods and Fertilisers led to the Supreme Court establishing itself as the protector of life and personal liberty as well as of the environment under Article 21 by adopting the principle of absolute liability. That was fine. So was the 1986 Environment (Protection) Act, which went far beyond the Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956, obliging all industries to establish stringent safety measures. But, as with India’s Constitution, the problem is the singer, not the song.

E-mails urge us today to take an e-pledge on a “Corruption-free India for a developed nation” as part of Vigilance Awareness Week. That doesn’t stop many top lawyers and doctors from demanding cash fees to avoid income tax. At a more innocent level, with more than 40 million cases clogging the lower courts (70,154 pending in the Supreme Court and nearly six million in 25 high courts), the old adage “Justice delayed is justice denied” becomes a joke.

Political opportunism is probably the most serious deterrent to accountability. An apocryphal story has Benjamin Disraeli saying that if his opponent William Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune; if someone fished him out, that would be a calamity. No wonder Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared to welcome Kolkata’s 2016 flyover collapse, killing 26 people, as an “act of fraud” that was “definitely an act of God”. He warned West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee: “It is a message from God to the people that today the bridge has come down and tomorrow Bengal will be finished”. As for Morbi, a similar disaster in Britain would have flooded the papers with the names and details of the victims and survivors as well as of the officials and politicians in charge of the bridge. In India the former are too unimportant to be mentioned, the latter too important to be named.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison. As Hegel had concluded, only one — the ruler — is truly free in the Orient. That’s democracy with Asian characteristics.

Tags: morbi bridge collapse, gujarat model, jawaharlal nehru, uttarakhand, j.k. galbraith, kalon danda