This tragedy has shown the sheer apathy of the administration and the insensitivity of politicians as hundreds lay trapped under the crumbling structure
By Sujit Bhar in Kolkata
Trust political parties to get mileage out of anything, even a tragedy. On March 31, 2016, over 20 meters of an under-construction flyover in the heart of Kolkata collapsed, killing 26 and injuring nearly 100. While there was shock and grief over this catastrophe and the shoddy planning of the flyover, politicians made the most of it.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s first comment was that the flyover was initiated during the Left Front rule. That it hardly has any bearing on the tragic incident makes little difference. If that wasn’t enough, Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally much later lashed out at Mamata by saying: “It is an act of god in the sense that it happened during election time so that people may know what kind of government she has been running.” And in an earlier statement, AGK Murthy, director (Operations), IVRCL Limited, the Hyderabad -based company constructing the flyover, said: “It is for the first time in the history of the company that such an incident has occurred… It is beyond our thinking. It is like an act of god.”
And with assembly polls coming up, politicians are even more concerned about their image. Even as the army responded with lightning speed by sending 300 troops to help in the rescue work, politicians tried to interfere. It was alleged that they instructed policemen not to cooperate. This led to confusion among the army as its men were not sure whether their help was welcome.
To top it, even the media did not help matters. A leading vernacular channel tried to do an analysis by calling members of the opposition party as panelists. In all the senseless ranting that followed by the Congress and the CPM, no one thought of calling a technocrat.
Meawhile, at the site people were dying and relatives searching frantically for their loved ones. Shabana Bano, 28, was trapped under debris, writhing in pain, with death staring her in the face. Using her last weapon, her cell phone, she desperately called her husband, Serajuddin Faroque, and another person for help. The family searched desperately but were hampered by lopsided rescue work. This meant that there were no barricades and the huge number of volunteers only added to the confusion and rising decibel levels. This drowned out the cries of Shabana and many others who could have been saved.
Shabana’s body was recovered 24 hours later. She leaves behind two kids, Nausheen 11 and Abdul 7. And when the grief-stricken family wanted a copy of her post-mortem report, the police brusquely told them it would take two to three months and they should forget it. However, when this was flashed in the media, the police produced the report within 24 hours.
This flyover at Burra Bazar, estimated to cost `166 crore, was seen as as a curse by locals. Manoj Agarwal, a paan shop owner, close to the site of the crash, told India Legal: “Look at the flyover. It is a disgusting sight. The arms of the pillars jut into people’s balconies. What kind of structure was being built? We don’t want this flyover. It has been forced upon us by politicians.”
When Jitesh Tiwary, a timber merchant in Nimtala, came to the area to make some purchases, he was stunned. “There were screams everywhere and it was chaotic. How difficult is it to get the design of a flyover right? You are building a flyover, not a rocket. It is not only the fault of the builder, but the administration and the government for allowing such shoddy work.” Prashant Dalmiya, a shopkeeper in Canning Street, who lives near the site, said: “If you are building on such a busy road, all precautions have to be taken. You cannot use sub-standard material. The government had been playing with the lives of thousands who pass under the flyover. Now, nobody is taking responsibility. This is a fascist administration against which nobody dares utter a word.”
Subsequent reports have revealed shocking details:
- IVRCL had been blacklisted thrice, once even by the Railways, for not being able to deliver as per required quality. It had restructured itself from bankruptcy and had even lacked funds for the current project. It worked on the project for 60 months when it should have been completed in 18 months.
- The collapse was due to three primary reasons: a) A major design flaw where the lateral arms meant to hold up the main structure were poorly built and did not have the required strength. They collapsed under the weight of fresh concrete being poured into the casing, crushing people and vehicles. b) The material used was sub-standard, an indicator of major cost-cutting. c) The bolts were welded, a no-no for such projects.
- There was a major rush to finish the stretch that was under construction. Last November, Mamata had said at a rally in Burra Bazar that it would be ready in February. This was a technical impossibility considering the stage at which the flyover was at that point.
- The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), entrusted for critical and technical oversight, did not bother to even look into what went into building the flyover. KMDA’s chairman, incidentally, is Firhad ‘Bobby’ Hakim, the urban development minister, who was seen in a recent sting taking wads of cash from the reporter. Shockingly, in this case, the consultant for the project (a company technically assigned for oversight) was owned by IVRCL. How can a company neutrally oversee its own work? How was it allowed?
- Men and material for the flyover were mainly supplied by “syndicates” close to the ruling Trinamool Congress. Sandhyamani Projects Pvt Ltd was one of them and owned by Rajat Bakshi, nephew of TMC leader Sanjay Bakshi. Sanjay’s wife Smita is the MLA from Jorasanko, the area where the flyover was built.
- These syndicates not only over-invoice the material supplied, but these are sub-standard and the labourers unskilled. Bakshi’s men were all working atop the flyover when it collapsed. Some died, many are in hospital.
While Mamata Banerjee flatly denies the existence of these syndicates, her own party leaders have openly accepted it. In a sting, Sabyasachi Dutta, the mayor of neighboring Salt Lake City, said: “I cannot provide them (people in the syndicates) daily earnings. If 20,000 youth die of starvation, the government will collapse. And if among those dead, 2,000 goons die, it will be a big problem.”
Amit Banerjee, a resident of the area, said: “These syndicates remind one of the mafia syndicates of America, long time ago. In New York, especially, they forced house owners, municipalities and government contractors to buy material from them and charged them the moon. If they did not listen, they would end up in landfills, dead. The difference is that the American government was willing to tackle the mafioso, but was weak. In this case, the government itself is the mafia. Where does the common man go?”
What is sad is that hardly any action has been taken against the guilty. Four employees of IVRCL were arrested and murder charges slapped on them. Mamata has announced statutory compensation for the families of those dead and injured. She has made this a poll issue, shifting the blame to the CPM which had initially allotted the project to this company. KMDA suspended two employees.
Also, four PILs were admitted by the Calcutta High Court. The litigants want a CBI inquiry, but Mamata has staunchly refused to agree to that. Chief Justice Manjula Chellur heard all petitions and has given the state government three weeks to submit to a report on the collapse. What remains, other than the sheer apathy of the administration, is the crumbling edifice of the flyover with huge steel structures and broken concrete slabs. Major parts of the road have been blocked and business affected. People still shiver when they look at the flyover and many are scared that the rest of it will also come crashing down.
Is this what Mamata’s “paribartan” was all about?
Box item: HL: Who Is Responsible?
Intro: Comments by various government functionaries to the media and at rallies are revealing:
Sadhan Pande (TMC Minister for Consumer Affairs & Self-Help Group & Self-Employment): “The nuts and bolts were welded, these should have been replaced. To do this work hurriedly is extremely sad… The welding was done in a rush… The state government or the KMDA should have checked the design issues.”
Sudip Bandopadhyay (TMC leader and MP): “Yes, we knew of the dodgy credentials of the firm, but already 60-70 percent of the work had been done, a huge amount of money had been poured into the project, how can you stop it then?”
Firhad Hakim: (Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority chairman): “Two KMDA engineers have been suspended and a probe is on.”
Sanjay Bakshi (TMC leader): “What is my role? Prove this, I will leave Kolkata and will never be in politics.”