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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 20 New Delhi May 7, 2016

Are Not Flyovers a Menace to the People? - The Case of Kolkata Flyover Collapse

Saturday 7 May 2016

by Debarati Sarkar

Development is incomplete without expansion of the physical infrastructure of any country. India has re-emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In India, the infrastructure sector currently accounts for 26.7 percentage of the country’s industrial output and thus remains a useful tool to balance the economy. According to Assocham-Ernst and Young, infrastructure, including roads, bridge, power, highways, airports and railways, have emerged as an asset class with long-term growth. Hence, the Indian Government’s first priority is to maintain and manage high growth through investment in the infrastructure sector as India is home to about 1.21 billion people, one of the most densely populated areas in the world with a high rate of urbanisation. To meet these challenges in urban places, governments of various States are taking up projects for improving the delivery of urban amenities.

Generally, adequate infrastructure facilities are like the wheels of urban life. One aspect of development is the never-ending construction of flyovers. Nonetheless, it not only promotes sustainable economic growth but also improves the living standards. Even as today the flyover and its functions have taken on the speed and efficiency characteristic of transportation arteries, the people and activities underneath portray an alternative narrative. On the other hand, while poor urban infrastructural development leads to losses of lives of innocent human beings, becoming a monumental tragic incident subsequently, it raises the question: do such developments symbolise public interest and improve their living standards?

Of late people witnessed a historic incident, on March 31, 2016, when a part of the under-construction Vivekananda flyover in the Girish Park neighbourhood of Kolkata, collapsed. The fall of a large section of giant steel frames and concrete slabs led to twenty-seven deaths while injuring more than eighty people. The pedestrians, the passengers in taxis and cyclists on the move were all crushed under the unimaginable weight of a large part of the flyover, which did not spare anything that came into its path the moment it collapsed. Later, of course, the rescue teams and local residents desperately made attempts to save the people and remove the debris. The bodies were covered in blood and sandwiched. A bloody hand from under a girder gestured for help as people handed over water bottles to survivors pinned underneath. Generally, death occurs due to disease, injuries or any natural calamity but in this case, death occurred due to man-made reasons, not because of natural calamities like earthquake or flood.

Why did the urban cataclysm happen in Kolkata? Who are responsible for those dead and decomposed bodies? Is it because of construction of the flyover? Not merely so. While political players and corrupt company both come in one line and start playing in favour of each other, subsequently the common person has nothing to do and is left to her/his fate. The reasons for this manmade accident: the geographical location was not at all suitable for such type of construction because the settlements in this particular place were highly congested and fell in the alignment line of the bridge. Even people of this area were not happy with this construction due to disruption of residential and living spaces, and they made an appeal to the High Court; but even then the project was not stopped and the local peoples’ will bypassed. In a democratic country, the government is by the people and for the people but this is not applicable in the real scenario. This is indeed a severe limitation of the experience of Indian democracy.

The design of this flyover was robust and changed several times. Infrastructure demands strong planning, coordination, decentralisation. Poor design and other flaws in the planning phase of the project itself can be a cause for damage and disaster. The construction of the Vivekananda flyover began in 2009; it was entrusted to the Hyderabad-based construction company, IVRCL, which was already on the watch-list of the Indian Railways, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh. The construction company missed so many deadlines and it became the death-line for the common people. The major deterrents in the quality of such a project were unethical practices and usage of sub-standard materials of inferior quality to maximise profits for the nexus of developers and the political representatives. This project was unduly delayed in the completion of infrastructure work but elections around the corner had made the West Bengal party in power speed up work without any quality check or precautionary measures in order to score brownie points. Often the decisions taken in India are seen from the political lens with scant regard to the security of the people. Nowhere in the world does construction work take place in the daytime when people are on the road for their daily chores. The construction team and the government did not check the safety of the common people and neglected human life.

The impact of the fall was massive. People did not get a fraction of a second before they could react to those who were crushed under the bridge. Those men and women might not have thought that morning that it would be the end of their journey and they would not be able to fulfil their desires. The injured persons were saved from death but sometimes even injury results in long-term or permanent disabilities. The local residents were scared of the thundering noise at that time. They may not forget it in future as well. Meanwhile, the political game began. The Chief Minister of the State rushed to the spot and announced compensation worth Rs 5 lakhs for the deceased victims and Rs 3 lakhs for the injured. Can life be calculated by compensation? How can one’s entire life and worth be translated into monetary value? She was quick to blame the Left Front Government as the project was sanctioned in 2007 during the Left Front regime. The former Municipal Affairs and Urban Development Minister said that the work was at the preliminary stage in 2008. Babul Supriyo, MoS, Union Urban Development, claimed that “the flyover was being built in violation of rules, without any proper planning and the State administration did not take any lesson even after the collapse of the Ultadanga flyover three years ago”. Kailash Vijayvargiya, the National General Secretary of the BJP, said: “This is pure corruption. The construction material was sub-standard.” Member of Parliament Sudip Bandyopadhyay, under whose jurisdiction the Assembly falls, said: ”There were flaws in the design from the inception and the locals had even complained” which he had conveyed to the State Government. No one was ready to take the responsibility; all were busy accusing their political opponents. In reality, however, all political leaders always forget the nature of Indian democracy where the Opposition’s main role is to question the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public. The Opposition is equally responsible for upholding the best interests of the people of the country. They have to ensure that the government does not take any steps which might have negative implications on the people. How can they ignore such construction work, which was going on for a long period?

Is it not the duty of the ruling party member to take action against such corruption, when he comes to know of it? Is not the government’s duty to provide safety, wellbeing to the citizens? The government, in its effort to save face, had immediately ordered an investigation into the incident and detained officials from IVRCL in connection with the accident. The spokesperson of the company, K. Panduranga Rao, first explained that it was an “act of God”. Faced with severe criticism for his evasive remark, he came out with another idea: it was a ‘blast’ that had caused the collapse, he said, without furnishing evidence. How could a weak construction of flyover that collapsed and killed many people in Kolkata be an act of god?

On April 4, 2016, the police arrested four more people in connection with the Kolkata flyover collapse case. The investigation and court procedures will go on for a long time. However, there is no existence of any strong law in our country to stop such corruption. Generally, it is said that weak laws are never able to give strong judgements. For example, the Uphaar Cinema Case, where the Supreme Court of India imposed a fine of Rs 30 cores on the Ansal brothers after 18 years! Is it not the government’s duty to check the proper back-ground of a company before giving the contract to it? Such incidents can be avoided in future if proper measures like close monitoring of projects, increasing accountability of officials, on-the-spot supervision by officials, reducing corruption are taken up by the authorities. This accident has brought new grist to the mill of the Opposition political parties for vote-bank politics.

It is not only the story of Kolkata. Such type of manmade accidents have occurred across urban India. In 2007, at least 15 people died and 20 others were injured after a portion of the flyover which was under construction at Panjagutta, in the busy corridor connecting Begumpet to the upscale of the Banjara Hills, collapsed. In 2008, at least five people were killed and 25 injured when an under-construction flyover at the Faizabad and Lucknow corridor collapsed. In Bihar, six people died and 26 were injured when an old bridge collapsed in 2009. In 2010, a year-old bridge collapsed near Shimla. Six labourers died and 36 others were injured when an under-construction bridge collapsed at Chauraas in Pauri Garhwal, Uttarakhand in 2012. Unplanned city development is rapidly on the rise as the number of urban citizens is mounting. We, the citizens of India, need to open our eyes and must be aware of the rules and regulations of urban planning and construction, instead of being ‘happy’ that our city is going to attain world class standard. These examples of accidents show how dangerous the situation in India is in terms of infrastructure development when our country has latest projects like AMRUT and SMART cities.

The author is a Research Scholar, Delhi School of Economics. She can be contacted at e-mail: debaratisarkar2006@gmail.com