By Prabir Purkayastha
The Morbi pedestrian suspension bridge over the Machchhu River collapsed on October 30, leading to the confirmed death of 141 persons and injuries to more than 100. In this column, I will not repeat what is widely known regarding one of the worst bridge disasters in India. The question that needs to be raised is whose responsibility is such a bridge in India and whether the authorities carried out their responsibilities. This is more than simply filing police cases against lower-level staff in the company, Oreva, a manufacturer of electronic clocks, CFL bulbs and e-bikes.
Oreva had been given the contract for the bridge renovation though they had no experience in any structural work. Yes, Oreva is responsible for taking on work for which they had no knowledge or expertise. But why was such work involving public safety given at all to a company with no previous experience? What was the role of the Morbi Municipal authorities who seemed to have handed out a contract to the Oreva group without any attempt to draw up a specification of what needed to be done; or any procedure to verify that the work had been done safely.
This leads to the questions: who is responsible for bridges over rivers in India and what was the role of the state government, in this case, the Gujarat government. The Gujarat state has statutory authority over the river Machchhu. It is, therefore, responsible for verifying the safety of any structure over the river. What did the Gujarat government do, which has been advertising the Morbi suspension bridge as a major tourist attraction and an engineering marvel? Let us first examine the contract between the Morbi Municipal Corporation and the company. The Morbi municipality did not issue any public tender for the repairs to a bridge that was 140 years old. Nor were any specifications issued or any prequalifications made for the renovation work, all standard practices for any public works. In this case, this is even more important considering the age of the bridge and the obvious safety issues with any suspension bridge, let alone a bridge of this age.
The agreement between Oreva and the Morbi Municipal authorities also had a clause that stated that no government authority would have any jurisdiction over the bridge for fifteen years, handing over the bridge completely to the company. Was this issued without taking explicit permission from the Gujarat state government? The state government has jurisdiction over any structure over a river (unless it is an inter-state river). Did the Gujarat government allow Morbi Municipality to issue such a waiver, or was it issued without taking their consent? Considering the Gujarat government viewed the Morbi Bridge as an “engineering marvel”, was the district magistrate and the PWD completely oblivious to the safety of the suspension bridge?
The municipal authorities have also claimed that Oreva opened the bridge without a fitness certificate. Again, the contract should have mentioned the need for a fitness certificate and what constitutes fitness for the bridge to be opened to public, including the safety requirements that needed to be met. Again, there is nothing in the contract. None of these failures of the Morbi Municipality absolves Oreva. As per Indian law and the Supreme Court’s verdict on the oleum gas leak case in Delhi, Oreva has legal responsibility for the safety of the people that they had permitted on the bridge by issuing tickets. Nor does the failure of Oreva absolve the Morbi Municipal authorities as the ultimate owners of the bridge, irrespective of their contract with Oreva.
Why is engineering of a suspension bridge more challenging? Any suspension bridge transfers the load of the entire structure on to the two sets of cables running on top from which the walkway hangs supported by a set of cables. The load of the entire structure is, therefore, on the two sets of cables running over the bridge, which transfers this load to the two sets of towers on each side of the bridge. Unlike a bridge supported on a set of piers/supports, the bridge behaves as one structure and if it collapses, it will collapse as a whole. Further, such hanging structures also face problems of vibrations due to wind that can lead to the collapse of a bridge. This was witnessed in the famous Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse in1940.
Finally, a bridge of this kind is as strong as its weakest member, in this case, the supporting cables. Since these cables were more thana century old, there was a need to evaluate the state of such cables: their rusting and ageing due to repeated stress. Again, there is nothing in the contract regarding the state of the cables and their replacement if needed. Finally, there was the major safety requirement: given the bridge’s age, should it be open to the public at all, or if open, what should be the maximum number permitted on the bridge? Again, complete silence in the contract. From what little we have learned, Oreva replaced the “deck” of the bridge. Again, replacing the bridge’s deck without considering the possible change in the weight of the hanging structure is a serious oversight.
All of these items should have been on the radar of the municipal authorities and the state government. After all, the Morbi Hanging Bridge was advertised as an engineering marvel and a major tourist attraction in Gujarat. So what did the Gujarat government do regarding a safety audit of such a structure?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had no hesitation in holding Mamata Banerjee responsible for the Vivekananda Flyover collapse in 2016, calling it an “act of fraud”. This time, he had no such statements on the culpability of the state government. The obvious difference is, of course, that in the 2016 elections Mamata and the Trinamool Congress were responsible for the bridge collapse. This time with the BJP running the state government and facing state elections within a month, the state government is being absolved of all responsibilities. Referring the matter to the court and having a court led investigation should not deter the state and the central government authorities to perform their investigations and give us answers to the questions raised regarding the safety of the Morbi Suspension Bridge.
By ducking the issue of who is responsible for the safety of a suspension bridge in the state, the Gujarat government is putting its electoral needs above the needs of the safety of the people. There are serious questions that need to be answered regarding the safety of such structures. If we do not learn from our mistakes in Morbi, we will be condemned to repeat them. Considering that there are many more suspension bridges in the country, let us not repeat the mistakes of Morbi and wait for more disasters. (IPA Service)
Courtesy: People’s Democracy