A century-old bridge being washed away and taking the lives of at least 22 people is a tragedy of epic proportions. But beneath the surface, lay innumerable failures cutting across state departments that made the response to the situation much worse and brought to light several unanswered questions.
For instance, for at least 20 hours after the incident, the government remained in the dark about the victims and the vehicles that fell into the river. All it knew was that two state transport (ST) buses and another private car fell into the river.
This, many said, was because there was no single agency responsible for coordinating disaster relief operations. The state’s disaster cell said it had assumed that the local administration would be able to track better how many vehicles had, really, fallen into the river. A desperate state government was then forced to issue an appeal for people to come forward and inform authorities if any relatives travelling on the route had gone missing.
Another unanswered question is in just why the government continued to put this 100-year-old bridge into service even while it constructed a new bridge, parallel to the existing one, 15 years ago.
The responses that the government offered were casual — while public works department (PWD) minister Chandrakant Patil said the government gave in to local demands for the bridge to be used, PWD officials said the bridge ensured there were no traffic bottlenecks.
What only reflects poor planning on the part of the administration is the fact that the bridge was slated to be demolished, but in December.
There were also questions about just how swiftly and efficiently the local administration reacted to the collapse in itself. “For a long time after the incident, local officials did not even bother sealing the bridge. Because of this delay, eyewitness accounts have said many vehicles drove on and fell into the river,” said Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, leader of opposition in the assembly.
That wasn’t all. The bridge was audited and studied for safety as recently as May. Senior PWD officials said the engineers responsible for the audit seemed confident of the report. However, many are wondering how they failed to detect safety issues with the bridge. PWD officials admit the bridge had not seen any major repairs recently “since it wasn’t needed,” said one bureaucrat.
However, not all failures were administrative. Many questions were raised about the delayed response by the political class in tackling the situation. The first minister from the government to reach the site of collapse was guardian minister of the district Prakash Mehta, who left for Mahad nearly 12 hours after the incident.
However, a senior official from the Relief & Rehabilitation department said there was little the government could have done better. “The rescue efforts have been well coordinated, but the magnitude of the event, in itself, is so large that it is difficult to have a better response to it.”