Liberal Opinion: Who is responsible for Morbi suspension bridge collapse?

Last week witnessed two of the  worst catastrophes  in recent times that took a heavy toll on human life. Not only the nations concerned – Korea and India – but the whole world plunged into gloom over these tragedies that struck Seoul in Korea and Morbi in Gujarat.  

Intriguingly, the Morbi tragedy happened even while the world was still trying to come out of the trauma of the worst ever stampede in Korea. In either case, the loss of human life was colossal. Prima facie, human aberrations  figure high on the cause list of these back to back traumatic episodes related to mass public participation events.

There are several commonalities between the Halloween stampede in Korea and the Morbi suspension bridge collapse as high level enquiries have been ordered by the national governments concerned.

The South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo  has ordered a thorough investigation into the Halloween stampede  that killed more than 150 mostly young people in Seoul. The tragedy plunged the country into mourning.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Morbi to share grief with those who lost their near and dear ones besides visiting the injured in the hospitals. Like his Korean counterpart, he too, has promised a high level enquiry into one of the most tragic happening of the recent decades.

Korean officials said the death toll had risen to 154 with 149 injured, 33 of them in serious condition.

Tens of thousands of party-goers had crowded into narrow streets and alleyways of Seoul’s popular Itaewon district for the first virtually unrestricted Halloween festivities in three years. Many of the revellers were in their teens. Most of them were dressed in special Halloween costumes.

It was somewhat a similar story at Morbi’s suspension bridge that shook the people to their bones. It claimed more than 130 lives.

If it hawked media headlines more than the Seoul stampede, it was because of the impending elections to Gujarat Assembly. All major political players, including Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress and the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are sparing no effort to lure indecisive voters to their sides.

The Suspension Bridge has been epitomised as an engineering marvel built at the turn of the century. It was built to give a unique identity to Morbi using the latest technology available in those days, in Europe. It is 1.25 m wide and spans 233 m on the Machchhu River connecting Darbargadh Palace and Lukhdhirji Engineering College.

It lies at a distance of 230 m from Gandhinagar.  On October 26 it was reopened to the public  after being closed for about seven months for extensive repairs and renovation.

When the tragedy stuck, more than 400 people were believed to be on and around the footbridge.

The 230-metre historic Morbi suspension bridge was first inaugurated on February 20, 1879, by then-Mumbai Governor Richard Temple.

Presumably it  was built on the lines of the Ram and Lakshman Jhulas on the Ganga in Uttarakhand by Morbi’s former ruler Sir Waghji Thakor. Inspired by the Britishers, Sir Waghji, who ruled Morbi till 1922, built the bridge to reflect “the progressive and scientific nature of the rulers of Morbi”,  says the district collectorate website.

It used the latest technology available in Europe those days. The material for the construction of the bridge came from England and cost Rs 3.5 lakh at that time.

The bridge connected Darbargadh Palace with Nazarbaug Palace, these were the residences of the then-royal families. The bridge is 1.25 m wide and spans 233 m on the Machchhu River. It could not escape severe damages in the 2001 devastating earthquake that shook Gujarat.

The Morbi municipality signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a private firm Oreva Group earlier this year for the operation and maintenance of the bridge for 15 years. In March, the bridge was closed for renovation.

Even though the bridge was opened after the completion of the renovation work on October 26, a fitness certificate  was still to be issued by the local municipality, media reports quoting chief officer of Morbi municipality Sandeepsinh Zala said.

Now the questions are being raised over the structural design and engineering of the collapsed bridge.

Whatever be the inferences or reports of the enquiry committees or fact finding missions, the damage done cannot be undone. Steps need to be taken so that such tragedies do not shake humanity any more.

(Prabhjot Singh is a veteran journalist with over three decades of experience covering a wide spectrum of subjects and stories. He has covered  Punjab and Sikh affairs for more than three decades besides covering seven Olympics and several major sporting events and hosting TV shows. For more in-depth analysis please visit probingeye.com  or follow him on Twitter.com/probingeye)

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