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How Varanasi flyover collapse dug out skeletons of negligence

India has a long history of sweeping man-made accidents under the carpet. That is precisely why we call them 'tragedies' or 'mishaps'.

 |  8-minute read |   16-05-2018
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What do you call a multi-crore under-construction project suddenly collapsing, bringing a huge slab of concrete down, crushing vehicles and human beings under it, rescue teams rushing to the site, social media erupting into a war over accountability, and TV cameras closing in on the victims trapped under the rubble in a bit-by-bit coverage?

Well, the answer is "Karnataka election results".

Unfortunately, a tragedy occurred on May 15, but it got lost in the din of poll results - the Varanasi flyover collapse, which claimed as many as 18 lives. The accident occurred when a portion of a 2,261m under-construction flyover collapsed on a road chock-a-block with traffic.

Describing the incident, the next day's news reports elaborated on the rescue operation: Five teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) deployed to lead rescue operations, dozens of policemen rushed to the spot. Eight cranes used to lift the debris and a crane with a 200-tonne lifting capacity also called in. Gas cutters used to pull out those trapped, mostly labourers.

A few reports also claimed that the rescue operations were over and no one was trapped under the debris.

Almost every report, at the end, mentioned that chief minister Yogi Adityanath had ordered an inquiry and had directed his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya to visit the spot.

There was one more detail that not a single report missed highlighting — PM Narendra Modi, who represents the constituency in the Lok Sabha, and likes to call himself UP's adopted son, tweeted, expressing his sadness over the incident. A few even felt that it was important to add extra emphasis.

screen_051618062805.jpgIn-depth reporting?

While, in some other countries, such reactions — mentioning an election "victory" and the loss of human lives in the same breath — would be considered unkind, ordinary Indian citizens are used to such cruel jokes being played on them.

In India, there is a long history of sweeping such man-made accidents under the carpet. That is precisely why we call them "tragedies" or "mishaps". An even better expression is "an unfortunate incident", "a message of God".

Message of God

When a similar man-made disaster, taking 26 lives, was brought upon the people of Kolkata in 2016, PM Modi had famously said that it was a “message from God”, telling the people of West Bengal that they must be saved from the state's ruling party, the TMC.

After Tuesday's accident, social media, which never forgives or forgets, pointed out the same.

The PM, while speaking at an election rally in north Bengal at that time, had said the tragedy exposed the dangers of the Trinamool government led by CM Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. “They are saying it is an act of God, but actually it is an act of fraud," Modi had said. "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 [Mamata Banerjee] has been running.”

The PM's dig, of course, was a spin on the statement of the operations director of IVRCL, the firm constructing the Kolkata flyover, who,on the day of the accident, said the tragedy is "like an act of God". While the operations director can't be absolved for calling the collapse "an act of God" ostensibly to avoid legal action, he was referring to an actual legal provision which many of us may not have heard of.

An "act of God" is known as force majeure in legal parlance, a term for forces such as a natural calamity that can impact the "performance of a contract and are beyond the control of the contracting parties". Most contracts awarded by the government generally have a provision that suspends a contractor’s obligations and liabilities in the eventuality of natural calamities.  

The real message

The tragedy here is not who said what and whose words have come back to haunt whom - but that human lives have really become cheap in India while sheer survival is left to the will of God.

Does nothing other than elections matter more to Indians - or their elected representatives?

Why is there such silence on the real issues involving real lives?

It's not just one Kolkata incident or the latest Varanasi tragedy.

While governments announce big infrastructure projects with surprising regularity, there are hardly any reports in the public domain about their implementation. PM Modi may dream of India becoming a nation of Smart Cities, which includes Varanasi too, but all that Indians get to know about these is the launch of big-ticket projects, especially during elections. Other than full-page government advertisements in newspapers tom-tomming "vikas purushs" and their development goals, there is very little information or accountability, not to mention a discussion of whether and how such dreams are even achievable

bullet_051618064315.jpg Many argue that the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train is nothing but a 'wasteful and vanity' project. 

Not surprisingly, while no one knows for sure what actually led to the collapse in Kolkata even after two years, the company constructing the flyover, IVRCL, last heard, was undergoing an insolvency process. A little over four months after the incident, a committee set up by the West Bengal government pointed out multiple reasons behind the collapse — faulty design, poor quality of raw material and lack of supervision. The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Agency (KMDA) had commissioned the work and the Hyderabad-based IVRCL was constructing the flyover. Initially, the police had slapped murder charges on officials of the construction company in the case, but those were later dropped. Instead, charges under Section 304 of the IPC (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder) were submitted in June 2016.

While it might be difficult to establish such negligence as "murder" legally, it's not hard to see what inept firms and corrupt state-run developing agencies intend to do to unsuspecting taxpayers with the use of “faulty design, poor quality raw material and lack of supervision”.

In case you are wondering, the Varanasi flyover is being built by the state-run UP Bridge Corporation. According to various news reports, the firm has been facing "difficult times" for some time now. According to an unnamed PWD official in this report, the overstaffed corporation has been facing a crisis because of "unprofessional handling of affairs, as well as unprecedented political and bureaucratic interference".

On Wednesday (May 16), an FIR was filed against officials of the UP Bridge Corporation, though no one was named. It simply listed officials in supervisory positions and contractors to whom jobs were outsourced. The cases have been filed under sections of negligence and culpable homicide not amounting to murder. According to state government sources, initial probe findings point at huge negligence (yes, of course, we need to be informed about that in case we hadn't realised).

More culprits

As if the negligence of the UP Bridge Corporation officials was not enough, there were further distressing developments. A day after the accident, it came to light that a family that lost five of its members in the flyover collapse was allegedly asked to pay a bribe of Rs 300 per body for conducting post-mortem.

According to a report in India Today, Jitendra Yadav, who lost five family members, said: "A staff member told us to pay Rs 300 per body for the post-mortem. They were demanding money from all the bereaved families." 

But it doesn't stop at bribery. There is more callousness under these ruins. A quote from an eyewitness in Varanasi sums it up: "Four cars, an auto-rickshaw and a minibus were crushed... The help came after an hour."

Clearly, the flyover isn't the only thing that collapsed on May 15.

Also read: Dear men in Bollywood, do you need Sherlock to ask for equal pay?

 

Writer

Sanghamitra Baruah Sanghamitra Baruah

Works at DailyO.

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