The unlearnt lessons in Kolkata’s tragic flyover collapse

The chief minister may be pointing fingers at the previous Left Front government, but she was the one who lit the fire under engineers to get the flyover done in a rush.

WrittenBy:Sandip Roy
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On a morning filled with heart-stopping testimonies from those who narrowly escaped death in the flyover collapse in Kolkata and poignant accounts of those whose family members might lie buried under the rubble, one comment stood out.

It was from an unnamed person at a private sector company who tells The Telegraph, “(Mamata Banerjee) has turned Calcutta into London, and that’s why the bridges are falling down.”

It was a moment of dark and biting humour on a grim morning. Mamata Banerjee’s off-the-cuff remark about turning into Kolkata into another London has been a standing joke in this city. “And how would she do this?” wondered Ian Jack in The Guardian.  She could repair ruined buildings. She could mend tramlines, build riverside theaters, declare art-deconeighbourhoods off limits to developers. Instead, he writes, “To be like London, Didi has decided that what Kolkata needs is a Ferris wheel. As there is a London Eye, so there will be a Kolkata Eye.” There is already a Little Ben. But while the city is busy building the tacky facsimiles of London, no one imagined that the great march towards that city could also mean that like London Bridge, Kolkata’s Vivekananda Bridge flyover would be falling down.

The flyover, now crumpled, mocks Banerjee’s grand dream of rebooting Kolkata and rebooting it fast. The flyover, now crumpled, mocks Banerjee’s grand dream of rebooting Kolkata and rebooting it fast. Ironically, in its downfall, it too has become a tourist destination. The day after the tragedy, schoolgirls in uniform gawked at a crushed yellow taxi cab, young men took selfies against piles of rubble while a local resident held court sharing bloody memories, and neighbours made a makeshift candlelight memorial for the victims.

Banerjee points fingers at the Left Front government who gave the flyover contract in 2009 to IVRCL, a firm that was eventually blacklisted in Andhra Pradesh, its home state. But she does not mention that she was the one who lit the fire under its engineers to get it done. It was a project beset with delays and cost overruns and the company itself is sitting on debt of Rs 164 crore and asked for Rs 74 crore bailout from the state in 2014.

Banerjee, with typical imperial impatience, suddenly announced in November last year that the flyover would be finished by February 2016. Told it was impossible, she upped the pressure;because that’s what ‘can-do’ CMs do. February came and went and a new deadline was set for August. While a probe will hopefully determine what caused it to buckle and fall, that haste certainly added to the pressure on the bridge.

The flyover lies there like a twisted symbol of a city’s haste to shake off decades of apathy and lacklustre planning just like that. And it lies there as a comment on a city and an administration’s hubris that something like this was even possible in an area as congested and rickety as Burrabazar. Union minister Babul Supriyo echoes many area residents when he says “My aunt lives there. Just two months ago, she had told me the flyover was so close to the residential buildings that it was dangerous.” The area with its cramped old buildings, its narrow streets filled with lorries bearing produce for Posta Market, is so congested that when the flyover came down, it was hard to get the cranes in to do the heavy lifting. Instead rescue workers had to painstakingly work with gas cutters to try and rescue those stuck underneath. That was time intensive and today the papers are filled with stories of people who were alive and trapped in the debris but died waiting to be rescued. One man pleaded for help. All bystanders could do was pass him water. He even managed to use a cell phone to call home.Three hours later, the man was dead before help could arrive.

K PandurangaRao, Group Head (HR & Admin) of IVRCL calls it “an act of God”, as if the flyover collapsed in an earthquake or supercyclone as opposed to human failing and human error. Banerjee vows “strong action” and says the “guilty will be arrested”. She had promised and vowed the same after the AMRI hospital fire in 2011, which killed 91 people, but a few years later some of the accused were on a business trip with her to Singapore.

But it is important not to think of Vivekananda Flyover as a singular story about one bad-apple company. Banerjee wanted to inaugurate the much-delayed flyover by February 2016 in time for assembly elections in Bengal. The Sewa Nagar flyover that collapsed in 1982 was built in a rush in Delhi in time for the Asian Games. A pedestrian bridge being built super-quick for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi collapsed in 2010, injuring 23 workers. It is a story more often than not about a delayed project and then a headlong rush to somehow meet a new deadline because a politician needs to inaugurate it and look good.

“Built over 6 yrs, gone in 6 seconds” read a Times of India headline today. “Bridge failures are always sudden; their causes rarely are,” writes Rahul Bhatia in a searing indictment about the state of India’s bridges for The Caravan,which chillingly documents the lack of maintenance and how engineers charged with protecting bridges who do not read the manuals. But that’s after it’s built.

The Vivekananda Flyover story, like many other such stories in India, as tabulated by Mint, is about a project that turns into a disastrous nightmare while being built. In 2014, an under-construction flyover slab came down in Surat, killing 10 construction workers and leaving six with permanent disability. A slab fell off a flyover being built near Mumbai’s international airport in 2013 and trapped several labourers under it. Usually those who build the flyovers and live under them are the ones who bear the brunt of the collapse.

Kolkata was different in that its spectacular flyover collapse affected an entire cross section of the city – the labourers who were toiling on it, the hawker who sold puja items just under it, the 65-year-old lady at her dentist’s appointment, the helper on a lorry loaded with ginger for Posta market, the Uber driver coming from Howrah station, the police constable in his kiosk, even a couple of engineers from IVRCL.

That’s what made it a story that brought the city to a standstill and made all of us sit up and pay attention.

But will we learn its lessons?


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