In Morbi’s debris, the role of the State in PPP projects - Hindustan Times

In Morbi’s debris, the role of the State in PPP projects

Jan 19, 2024 03:49 PM IST

At present, the conversation around Morbi is opaque and the ignored questions about the bridge collapse stand as evidence of a politics of neglect.

Nearly a year ago, shortly after October 30, 2022, I visited the site of the Morbi bridge collapse. The horrifying images of the cables hanging and swinging in the wind and parts of the bridge scattered like scrap metal are fresh in my memory. I had visited the site with many architectural questions that were missing from mainstream news. After a year of politics, photo-ops, judicial proceedings, and reports, the questions remain unanswered.

The pedestrian bridge collapsed in Morbi on October 30, 2022. (AP) PREMIUM
The pedestrian bridge collapsed in Morbi on October 30, 2022. (AP)

Whenever a project is floated by the government, a Request for Proposal (RFP) is published. The RFP document lays out two things — the requirements that the government has for which it is requesting proposals from professionals and the qualifications that applicants must meet to participate in the bid.

First, where is this RFP? If the RFP was ever floated, what were its contents and how did the Oreva Group qualify to be engaged as a consultant for this project? The SIT report revealed that the professionals engaged by Oreva were not experts in structural engineering or architecture. If that is true, then who approved the company’s candidacy to undertake the project? In the case of public-private partnerships (PPPs), this is the most critical point. Here, a representative of the State assesses a company’s expertise to undertake work on public infrastructure and then engages it.

Second, when a conservation project is undertaken, a drawing is prepared showing the condition in which the structure was found. This drawing has markings that show the problems with the structure and is then used as a base drawing. Where are these drawings? Were they ever made? Was the scope of work ever audited? If such a drawing was never prepared, who was responsible for its submission? What action has been taken, beyond suspension, on the representatives of the State who operated in utter neglect?

Third, after assessment, the consultant prepares a drawing that shows the work that is to be undertaken. In the case of Morbi bridge, for example, this would include replacing and repairing suspension cables and adding new structural members. This is indicated in a drawing called a proposal or conceptual drawing, which is discussed with experts and overseen by a representative of the State — usually a bureaucrat. Where is this drawing? Was it ever prepared? Who approved it?

A structure is designed for two types of loads — dead load and live load. Dead load is the weight of the structure itself without any human activity on it and live load is the weight of human activity on the structure — people walking on the bridge, for example. Early investigations of the bridge collapse indicated that replacing the wooden planks of the bridge with metal plates increased its dead load and when excessive live load — people — was added, the cables snapped. While the guards and clerks manning the bridge — regulating its live load — have been charge-sheeted, we don’t know who approved the increase in its dead load.

Fourth, after several revisions, a good-for-construction (GFC) drawing is issued. This is the most important drawing of all because it is issued to the site and used to make actual material changes to the structure. Where is the GFC drawing of the Morbi bridge? Was it ever submitted? If yes, who approved it? Moreover, who was the structural engineer who approved the GFC to be fit for construction and where are those calculations?

And last, after a project is completed, an as-built drawing is prepared. An as-built drawing is the cumulation of all revisions and depicts the structure as it was finished at the end of the project. Where is the Morbi bridge's as-built drawing? The municipal corporation, whose office is within a few kilometres from the bridge, claimed that it did not know that the bridge had been opened while Jaysukh Patel, the managing director of Oreva Group, actually did a press conference accompanied by a detailed tour of the bridge on a local social media news channel called ‘Morbi Update’, announcing the opening of the bridge. All the victims I talked to said that they went to the bridge because they had seen this announcement. The corporation’s claim of ignorance about the bridge’s opening means that Oreva did not submit the as-built drawing and neither did the press conference about the town’s central tourist attraction ever reach the government’s ears.

These questions are important because the very basis of the system of PPP is trust in the State’s representatives. To put the entire blame of the accident on a private firm that undertook the project ignores the seriousness of the role of people’s representatives in infrastructure development. India’s era of bureaucratic socialism taught us that the government does not have the capacity to undertake complex professional projects and, therefore, the PPP is an effective model of infrastructure development. But for the PPP to be a trustworthy model for the development of our cities, we need to hold the government accountable for such works and not just limit our scrutiny to private actors.

Public infrastructure is the everyday interface between the State and its citizens. It is where we experience the State in the most tangible ways — roads, sidewalks, bridges, and flyovers. Public infrastructure dictates not just the quality of our lives but also, as we saw in the case of the horrific Morbi disaster, places bodies of citizens at the mercy of the State’s supervision. This conversation is missing from the story of Morbi and the State is disturbingly absent in the narrative.

At present, the conversation around Morbi is opaque and the ignored questions about the bridge collapse stand as evidence of a politics of neglect.

Fahad Zuberi is an architect and a scholar of South Asia at the University of Oxford. The views expressed are personal

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