As search operations for the missing wind down, the families of the Mahad bridge collapse victims said they hope the focus now shifts to how the long neglect of the Mahad bridge cost several lives.
Locals said the British firm that built the bridge over a century ago told the district administration in 2010 that it had turned 100 and would require repair work. Authorities, however, allowed it to be in service even though a new bridge was built parallel to it in 2001, locals said.
The bridge’s weak structure was exposed only when heavy rain brought down almost 60% of it on the night of August 2. Two state transport buses and an SUV carrying at least 40 people were washed away by the Savitri river. Some bodies were recovered from as far as 150km from the spot.
“This shows the scale of the disaster. If the government had closed the bridge, it would have saved my sister’s husband,” said Pramod Surve, who, like several other relatives, lost hope of finding their kin and left Mahad on Friday.
While families struggle with the tragedy, at the government level, the blame game continues.
Public Works Department minister Chandrakant Patil had said the administration kept the old bridge ope, giving in to the demands of the local residents. Most of them, however, deny this.
Patil also said the bridge’s structure was assessed in May by running a 20-tonne truck across it. The assessment had shown the bridge was “technically sound” and it did not flag off any safety issues, Patil had said.
But experts said this testing method is not enough to check if a bridge can withstand the strong river currents underneath, when the Savitri river swells during the monsoon.
“The bridge was obviously structurally sound — it lasted more than a century. What should have been checked is if it was strong enough to withstand environmental factors,” said Madhav Bhide, founder, Indian Institute of Bridge Engineers (IIBE).
“We must look at this as a case study to bring the much-needed changes in how safety audits are conducted in the future. Among the other things, environmental factors surrounding the bridge should have been considered,” Bhide said.
Other experts agreed.
“All over the world, flooding is a major cause of bridges collapsing. But India lacks a system of accountability,” said Parineeta Dandekar, associate coordinator, South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People, asking for such safety audits to be brought into public domain.
While the Mahad bridge’s age, structure and the lack of proper repair work made it a disaster waiting to happen, environmentalists also pointed out that illegal sand mining over the past few decades both at the upstream and downstream Savitri contributed to the collapse.
“Along with taking the structure into account, the government should have considered hydrological and environmental aspects and the overall impact they would have had on the bridge’s structure. In the case of the Mahad collapse, the government did not carry out a proper audit and even failed to stop illegal mining,” Dandekar said.
Sumaira Abdulali from the Awaaz Foundation had also written to the chief minister about how mining was weakening the bridge. The government, however, has already ruled this out as a cause. “Sand dredging has been taking place at a spot far away from the collapsed bridge,” minister for state for home, Deepak Kesarkar, said.
This bridge collapse has brought into focus nearly 120 other such century-old structures across the state.
While CM Devendra Fadnavis has ordered a probe into the Mahad collapse, and has directed the administration to audit other old bridges in the state, most experts said this was a case of too little, too late.