On Wednesday (August 3), a 100-year-old British-era bridge on the Mumbai-Goa highway caved in, sending two buses and other smaller vehicles into a swollen Savitri river near Mahad, about 170 km from Mumbai. At least 42 people are feared killed in the accident.
The mishap triggered a chain of predictable announcements from the Maharashtra government: Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced a judicial probe, a structural audit of old bridges and an ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh each for the families of those killed in the accident.
However, there was, as always, nothing beyond these routine announcements: There was no indication about which government agency was responsible for the maintenance and doing a regular safety audit of the bridge.
Was it the public works department (PWD) or the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI)? The PWD minister, Chandrakant Patil, blamed the NHAI, saying that the agency had declared it to be safe for use two months back. “That’s why it had not been closed to the traffic,’’ Patil told HT.
The Opposition, however, seems to think it was not the NHAI, but the PWD responsible for the maintenance of the bridge and that concerned minister and officials of the department should be booked under Section 302 of IPC for failing to maintain the bridge properly.
According to reports, there were ample warnings: Last year Mahad MLA had warned of a tragedy waiting to happen while raising the issue of the bridge’s condition in the assembly. In response, the government uprooted some tree branches growing out the bridge’s joints and declared it structurally sound. In 2013, a senior Shiv Sena leader wrote a similar letter to then CM Prithviraj Chauhan, warning him of the weak bridge.
The incident and the business-as-usual responses of the government reminded me of the new Irrfan Khan-starrer social thriller Madaari in which the protagonist (Khan) puts pressure on senior politicians to reveal the names of corrupt officials who were responsible for a bridge collapse and the death of his young son.
While most of us would not take the route Khan did in Madaari (kidnapping the son of the home minister) to force the government to reveal names of those responsible, ex gratia payment and judicial probes hold no meaning for most of us.
Why can’t the CM, at least, reveal which department was responsible for the maintenance of the bridge?
Late last year, the Uttar Pradesh government wrote to district heads, civic agencies and development authorities to punish those responsible for potholes, the cause of many deaths.
Doing this may not be easy but it’s time that governments in India weave in a ‘liability clause’ with penal liabilities into agreements with contractors/departments/agencies who maintain our critical infrastructure.
They can’t use judicial probes/committees, which are usually not time-bound, to shield corrupt/inefficient officials and contractors.