Shock turns to anger over bridge collapse in India
It should have been a perfect ride. Last Sunday, 21-year-old Divya and her family took her excited niece and nephew to cross the famous pedestrian suspension bridge, which has swayed gently over the sprawling Machchu River in Morbi, western India, since colonial times.
The bridge had just reopened after renovations overseen by its operator, a subsidiary of a corporate group best known for making electric clocks. But as hundreds of holidaymakers flocked to the narrow footpath, it suddenly collapsed. Divya was thrown into the weed-murky water below and 135 other visitors were killed, including her niece and nephew, aged six and four.
The disaster has sent shockwaves through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat ahead of crucial legislative assembly elections next month.
It has also sparked angry calls for accountability as the latest in a long line of infrastructure failures that many Indians blame on poor government oversight and widespread corruption in public works.
“The bridge was old, but we never thought it was fragile,” said Divya, who asked to be identified only by her first name, as she visited her injured sister in a local hospital, her arm still in a black sling.
“My cousin and niece are never coming back. But let them punish those behind this tragedy. That’s all I want to see,” he said.
Modi, who was on a three-day visit to Gujarat when the disaster struck, has called for a special inquiry into the tragedy, expanding an investigation already launched by the state’s chief minister.
Police have arrested several junior employees of the Oreva Group, a prominent watch maker whose subsidiary Ajanta Manufacturing has been contracted to operate and maintain the bridge. Ajanta contracted another company for seven months of repair work. The Indian Express newspaper reported that the two owners of the contractor are also in custody.
Witnesses say they believe too many people were allowed inside the thin structure. “The bridge was overcrowded,” said Arshad Bhai, a local volunteer who saw the collapse and estimated there were about 500 people on it at the time. Officials said about 180 people were rescued from the water.
The collapse follows a highway collapse in Varanasi in 2018 that killed 18 people and a road collapse in Kolkata that killed 27 in 2016. This year, Bangalore, one of India’s richest cities, suffered extensive flooding due to infrastructure failures.
“The Morbi disaster is another example of how poor India’s infrastructure is,” said Sanjay Kumar, a professor at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, who recently completed research on public perceptions of corruption in Gujarat.
“The government can claim that they are making every effort to curb corruption in public life,” Kumar said. “But I think that the reality is that there is corruption in various fields.”
Now Gujarat-based Oreva, a five-decade-old electronics business founded in Morbi, is at the center of police investigations and political mudslinging.
The crash comes at a sensitive time for the BJP, which dominates its political heartland of Gujarat but faces a challenge from the opposition Aam Aadmi Party led by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
Opposition politicians have tried to link the company to Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party by circulating a more than 10-year-old photo of the company’s late founder Odhavji Raghavji Patel, known as the “father of wall clocks”, presenting flowers to Modi.
Kejriwal called on the BJP Gujarat chief minister to resign, claiming at a press conference without providing any evidence that the “Morbi Bridge collapse was a result of massive corruption”.
Narendra Taneja, the BJP’s former national spokesperson based in New Delhi, denied the opposition’s allegations of wrongdoing in local procurement.
“It is extremely unfortunate that in the face of such a tragedy, they have to engage in politics,” Taneja said. “We understand the feelings of the families of the victims, but at the same time they have to wait [state government investigation’s] to find.”
Oreva did not respond to requests for comment.
Analysts say that while the BJP is expected to retain its grip on the Gujarat state assembly in next month’s elections, Kejriwal’s AAP is gaining ground.
The BJP is “still in pole position, but there has been a shake-up in the political makeup of the state” thanks to the AAP, said Milan Vaishnav, director of South Asia programs at the Carnegie Endowment.
Modi visited Morbi on Monday, promising a “detailed, impartial and comprehensive” probe.
But some people who went to see the remains of the bridge were skeptical of justice.
“We are told that there will be a full investigation to identify the culprits. But the investigation will not reveal anything,” said banker Himanshu Rasikbhai, who watched search boats ply the river for bodies.
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