A Travesty of Governance
It seems that the Indian government has buckled under pressure from such giants as Gammon India and Hyundai. There are no rules and regulations that these giants need to abide by. Due to the criminal negligence of these companies, 48 innocent lives were lost but neither were they blacklisted nor any concrete action taken against them. Gammon India is not a first-time offender; it is a serial offender and every time it was able to pass the buck and evade action. Despite its dubious record, the company is bagging new contracts. Has Gammon got the support of the State? Is there a sinister nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and companies that does not attach any significance to the lives of poor wage earners who die in accidents? The companies that were responsible for the Kota bridge collapse have again started building the same bridge.
Chauthi Duniya accessed a confidential document regarding the Kota bridge collapse in 2009 that exposes the inhumane face of the Indian government. This document unambiguously establishes that Gammon India and Hyundai were responsible for the bridge accident in Kota in which 48 labourers died. Instead of penalising them, the government has rewarded them. Though the families of the dead construction workers have become destitute, the same bridge is being constructed by the same companies, the same engineers, with the same design and the same materials. The only thing that has changed is the faces of workers.
This bridge is being made over the Chambal River in Kota city, Rajasthan. Here the Chambal cuts a fairly deep gorge and both the banks are rocky. This under-construction bridge does not have pillars which is why it is popularly known as the Hanging Bridge of Kota. Also, the bridge is imprinted in popular memory as on 24 December 2009, this bridge collapsed and many workers died in the mishap. Government sources place the number of dead at 48. Only after a couple of days did the Chairman of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), Brijeshwar Singh, arrive at the site of the accident. The first thing he did was to declare that Gammon India and Hyundai Engineering could not be blamed for the mishap. He said that the collapse was caused due to some technical glitch and that the matter would be investigated to fix the exact causes. But what was the rationale of giving a clean-chit to the two companies even before an investigation had been launched, leave aside completed? Why was the Chairman of NHAI in such a hurry to wrap up the whole matter? What should also have been investigated were the reasons behind why the Chairman of NHAI gave such a statement and under whose pressure. Was his statement in accordance with the wishes of his Minister Kamal Nath or did he issue the statement of his own accord? All these questions have great relevance because the four member committee that went into the matter has concluded that the primary responsibility of the collapse lay with Gammon India and the South Korean construction giant, Hyundai.
Let us go into the responsibilities of various companies involved in the construction of the bridge. NHAI gave the contract of the bridge to two companies in the joint venture: Gammon India Limited (Mumbai) and Hyundai Engineering and Construction Company Limited (South Korea). This was a turnkey project which means that the responsibility of the contracted companies from commencement to conclusion is complete, that is, from design to operation. So even in principle, the responsibility for the Kota Bridge lies with both the companies. If the NHAI decided to give them a clean chit despite this, it is a matter of utter callousness. Two more companies were contracted with the responsibility of overseeing the project: The Lewis Berger Group (LBG), US, and COWI, partnering in a joint venture.
Chauthi Duniya accessed a confidential document which proves that Gammon India and Hyundai are to blame for the bridge accident in Kota. Instead of penalising them, government has rewarded them: the bridge is being constructed by the same companies, the same engineers, with the same design and same materials; the only thing that has changed is the faces of workers.
When the bridge collapsed, the media tried to blank out the details so much so that television channels too showed very little reportage of the accident. This is the reason why people have almost forgotten the mishap. The Delhi Metro Bridge collapse remains in popular memory because the media covered it extensively but as most of the dead in Kota were poor labourers, the media did not deem it fit for coverage. But what is common between the two accidents is that both the construction sites were under Gammon India Limited. Also, with regard to penal action, the two cases present a stark parallel: in Delhi, chargesheets have been filed against junior officials leaving the bigwigs off, just as in Kota.
The Kota Bridge fiasco was examind by a committee of four which was chaired by Nirmal Jeet Singh, apart from members, Ninan Koshi, Prof. Mahesh Tandon and bridge specialist Prof. A.K. Nagpal. The committee submitted its final report on 31 July 2010 but the government classified the document and hid it from public gaze. Added to this, no a
ction was taken against the errant companies and no issues related to shortcomings that were flagged by the report were ever taken up.
The expert committee found a number of factors that contributed to the collapse of the bridge. It found that the part of the bridge that collapsed was weak and unstable. Also, the design of the bridge was faulty and there were issues of quality control. The expert panel had fixed the responsibility on two companies – Gammon India and Hyundai Engineering. It said that due to the dereliction of duties on the part of the two stated companies, the bridge reached such a critical stage of instability that it had to collapse eventually. At the same time the companies bypassed a number of rules and regulations and did not take any corrective steps in the aftermath of the mishap. The report found anomalies in the construction of pillars, P-3 and P-4. The most astonishing revelation in the report was that the design itself was faulty. The design was prepared by Sistra for Hyundai.
The report also indicted the two companies responsible for regulation and overseeing of the project. LBG and COWI were responsible for regulating the construction and authenticating the design. They failed at various steps. COWI never went into the details of the design nor did it try to look into the procedural anomalies in construction. These two did not even object at the numerous changes made in the construction process. In fact, they turned a blind eye to the infringement of standards and parameters that had been set for construction. All this happened when the companies needed permission from a number of places to change the construction procedure.
The committee also raised objections over the role of Fryssienet, a company responsible for supplying machines and equipment for construction which had triggered the process of crumbling down of the bridge.
Though government documents the death of 48 people. But the locals believe that more than 90 people lost their lives. Some who died were engineers of the companies, some were labourers who were working under contract while many were migrant daily wagers working for less than Rs. 150 a day. The latter were never fully accounted for as they were not registered anywhere.
Immediately after the accident, Union Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways, Mahadeo Singh Khandela assured that the responsible companies would be blacklisted even if they were such biggies as Gammon and Hyundai. And yet, though a lot of time has elapsed since the report came out, no action has been taken by the government.
The government did take action against some but that was more of an eyewash than any sincere attempt at bringing the culprits to book. An FIR was lodged in Kunhadi Police Station and the ones arrested got bail after 5 months; these included some Italians, some Japanese and a few site engineers. But the big fish managed to play the system and slipped out. The MDs, CEOs, Chief Engineers or any other highly placed officials were all spared.
The sheer callousness and insensitivity of the authorities prodded the people to launch a protest movement against the injustice handed out to them. The Central Vigilance Commission was notified of the bungling that had gone into the case but nothing came out of it. Some people decided to knock on the doors of the NHAI, Government of India and Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, but none of these efforts paid off. In the end people wrote to the Prime Minister who sympathetically replied that the entire matter will be looked into in a fair manner but what is happening as of now is entirely contrary to it.
The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is currently under C.P. Joshi of Rajasthan. Despite hailing from the same state, Mr. Joshi seems to have conveniently forgotten the incident. Instead of getting blacklisted, these companies are again building the same bridge. No heed has been paid to the report and recommendations or findings of the inquiry committee. The bridge is being built according to the same faulty design and by the same set of engineers who presided over the collapse. The moot point is, if construction is going on as before the collapse, what is the guarantee that the same tragedy will not revisit the unfortunate bridge? The inquiry has found the construction companies guilty. To compound this, the insensitivity of the government and callousness of the authorities have put the establishment as well squarely in the dock.
On That fateful Day
In Kota, the Chambal river was being bridged. This bridge was to serve as a decongestant to the traffic of Kota by serving as a bypass. This bypass lies on National Highway 76. But on the fateful day of 25 December 2009, the people of Kota read in the newspapers that what was to be another marvel of engineering and construction had collapsed just like a house of cards. The bridge had caved in on the evening of 24 December 2009 at around 5 :17 p.m. The accident site presented a gruesome picture: blood spattered all around, corpses lying here and there but there was no fire brigade and only a few policemen guarded the site. The Collector and Commissioner were present. Interestingly, when the bridge collapsed, none of the figures of authority reached the spot. They reached only after the incident was reported in the newspapers the next morning. The people of Kota were very restive. Prior to this bridge, there was another bridge which was called Ball Bearing and it had served its life. About a couple of years ago it had bent and became unusable. People associated the collapse with corruption. They believe that the political class and highly placed officials of the country are toadies of foreign companies, even if the latter claim the lives of their own countrymen, children and women.