bridges to nowhere

The Ma­jer­hat bridge col­lapse in Kolkata is tragic proof of the state’s re­fusal to learn les­sons

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - Puja Bhat­tachar­jee

The Ma­jer­hat bridge col­lapse in Kolkata is tragic proof of the state’s re­fusal to learn les­sons

septem­ber 4, 2018. Kolkata. it’s quar­ter to five in the evening. The shanty dwellers in Ma­jer­hat felt the earth shake.

a loud crash, dust ris­ing from rub­ble and crum­bling con­crete, wa­ter splash­ing. The Ma­jer­hat bridge, run­ning partly across a canal, had col­lapsed. a nearly 70-foot sec­tion came down, crush­ing many ve­hi­cles and killing one per­son in­stantly. out of the dust and rub­ble emerged labour­ers of the metro con­struc­tion site nearby.

The Ma­jer­hat bridge has stood in the ali­pore neigh­bour­hood of Kolkata for more than 50 years. on one side is a mid­dle-class neigh­bour­hood. its streets are lined with trees which cast cool shades on chil­dren play­ing cricket in the swel­ter­ing oc­to­ber heat. The other side over­looks the chaotic metro rail­way con­struc­tion project – scaf­fold­ings, rub­ble and heavy ma­chin­ery – and a shanty lined road that leads to the Ma­jer­hat rail­way sta­tion. con­sid­ered an en­gi­neer­ing mar­vel when it was built, the bridge now stands scarred and in the process of be­ing pulled down, a tes­ti­mony to the bad gov­er­nance of pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture in West Ben­gal.

The rail­ways, which has charge of a sec­tion of the bridge, had writ­ten to the Kolkata Met­ro­pol­i­tan de­vel­op­ment au­thor­ity (Kmda), warn­ing that a sec­tion of the bridge was mis­aligned and that there were cracks. The state gov­ern­ment, how­ever, does not go be­yond say­ing mul­ti­ple agen­cies were in­volved in the main­te­nance of the bridge. The crash is not a one-off in­ci­dent, though. of late, a num­ber of old and un­der­con­struc­tion bridges have col­lapsed in var­i­ous parts of West Ben­gal.

“ev­ery bridge has its own dis­tress rea­sons and it has to be rec­ti­fied ac­cord­ing to the sit­u­a­tion,” says Partha Pra­tim Biswas, pro­fes­sor, depart­ment of con­struc­tion en­gi­neer­ing, Ja­davpur univer­sity. Broadly, he says, there are five main rea­sons for a fly­over un­der con­struc­tion, or an old one, for that mat­ter, to col­lapse: de­sign fault, poor qual­ity con­struc­tion ma­te­rial, faulty erec­tion prac­tices, lack of su­per­vi­sion dur­ing con­struc­tion, and lapses in post­con­struc­tion mon­i­tor­ing.

“The su­per-struc­ture, the area in which ve­hi­cles ply, has to be sup­ported by scaf­fold­ing till it ac­quires its own strength,” says dipesh Majumdar, a civil en­gi­neer­ing con­sul­tant. “if the

scaf­fold­ing is re­moved pre­ma­turely, the risk of col­lapse in­creases.”

Tech­ni­cal rea­sons apart, there is a deeper malaise. Biswanath chakraborty, a psephol­o­gist and an ob­ser­vor of pol­i­tics, says such things hap­pen when a gov­ern­ment tries to show­case its achieve­ments and hur­riedly ful­fil its pop­ulist agenda. Many would also blame cor­rup­tion rack­ets run by lo­cal syn­di­cates that cor­ner con­tracts and con­trol the sup­ply of labour­ers and con­struc­tion ma­te­rial.

such syn­di­cates can­not run with­out po­lit­i­cal sup­port. in fact, their very ge­n­e­sis – as a peo­ple-friendly mea­sure of the Left Front gov­ern­ment in the 1990s – was po­lit­i­cal. When the gov­ern­ment be­gan to ac­quire land for the ra­jarhat Town­ship, on the north­east­ern fringe of Kolkata, many farm­ers and land own­ers were left with­out a source of in­come. “To ap­pease them, the gov­ern­ment, in ad­di­tion to giv­ing them com­pen­sa­tion, of­fered them em­ploy­ment in the form of the syn­di­cate,” says chakraborty. “it was de­signed as a co­op­er­a­tive sys­tem for them to earn from sup­ply­ing con­struc­tion ma­te­rial to the real es­tate de­vel­op­ers. af­ter the Tri­namool congress came to power in the state in 2011, the sys­tem was usurped by goons and the co-op­er­a­tive norms were dis­carded.”

Lo­cal strong­men with con­nec­tions in the rul­ing party and the ad­min­is­tra­tion run such syn­di­cates. re­al­tors are forced to buy ma­te­ri­als from the lo­cal syn­di­cate and em­ploy labour­ers sup­plied by them. “if they don’t, they have to pay a com­mis­sion per square foot. a part of the money goes to the party fund,” he says. so deeply is the “syn­di­cate raj” en­trenched in the so­cial fab­ric of West Ben­gal that last year, even Kr­ishna Bose, a for­mer MP and the mother of Tri­namool MP sug­ata Bose, was not spared. The ju­nior Bose called the syn­di­cate an out of con­trol Franken­stein’s mon­ster.

un­em­ploy­ment is the root of the syn­di­cate prob­lem, says chakraborty. ac­cord­ing to the Fifth em­ploy­ment-un­em­ploy­ment sur­vey re­port 2015-16, 13.9% of peo­ple with post­grad­u­ate de­grees, and 9.8% of peo­ple who have com­pleted un­der­grad­u­ate stud­ies, are un­em­ployed in West Ben­gal. even chief min­is­ter Ma­mata Ban­er­jee has de­cried the syn­di­cates as it is seen to hurt her chances of bring­ing in­vest­ment to Ben­gal. she had even directed the po­lice to ini­ti­ate a crack­down against those in­volved.

“In­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and the rule of law is the so­lu­tion to the syn­di­cate prob­lem. With more and more peo­ple find­ing work, the re­sources of the syn­di­cate will di­min­ish,” says chakraborty. There are two ways to test the health of an old bridge, says civil en­gi­neer­ing con­sul­tant Majumdar. “Through vis­ual ob­ser­va­tion and con­duct­ing non-de­struc­tive tests such as a load test,” he says. “as of the date, the state pub­lic works depart­ment (PWD) does not have the set-up to con­duct non­de­struc­tive tests and load tests. They de­pend on pri­vate com­pa­nies or gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties like the cen­tral road re­search in­sti­tute and rail in­dia Tech­ni­cal and eco­nomic ser­vice (rites), which are crit­i­cally over­loaded.”

so for now, the depart­ment re­lies only on vis­ual ob­ser­va­tion, which is not enough, says Biswas. “The bridges and fly­overs need con­tin­u­ous mon­i­tor­ing, which can be done by us­ing sen­sors and get­ting con­tin­u­ous data in the con­trol room,” he says. “But pol­i­cy­mak­ers should have a pro­fes­sional mind­set. smart, sen­sor-based mon­i­tor­ing of bridges can be done at a very ra­tio­nal cost.”

Majumdar says pro­fes­sion­als trained for smart mon­i­tor­ing are not easy to find, though the Cen­tral Road Re­search In­sti­tute and IITS of­fer short cour­ses on re­pair and as­sess­ment. Ja­davpur univer­sity has started the state’s first masters de­gree course in re­pair and as­sess­ment, he adds. a gov­ern­ment con­sul­tant says the state PWD and Kdma do not in­spect and re­port on old bridges; they might learn, he says, from the rail­ways, which in­spects and mon­i­tors its bridges daily. set in place by the Bri­tish, the work prac­tice for­bids the use of bridges that haven’t been cleared by a group of engi­neers that in­spects it ev­ery day. But in the ab­sence of such a sys­tem, road bridges re­main unin­spected and there is no ac­count­abil­ity. Be­sides, ad­min­is­tra­tive de­lays en­sure that even if an en­gi­neer flags a bridge for re­pair, funds for the work aren’t re­leased on time.

in West Ben­gal, mul­ti­ples agen­cies like PWD, Kmda, Kolkata Mu­nic­i­pal cor­po­ra­tion, Kolkata Port Trust and Hooghly river com­mis­sion are re­spon­si­ble for the con­struc­tion and main­te­nance of bridges, cul­verts and fly­overs. “Co­or­di­na­tion be­tween them is dif­fi­cult and a sin­gle win­dow sys­tem is the need of the hour,” says Biswas. There’s

too much em­pha­sis, too, on new con­struc­tions rather than main­te­nance of ex­ist­ing struc­tures.

in the girish Park neigh­bour­hood of cen­tral Kolkata, a 150-me­tre steel span of the un­der-con­struc­tion Vivekananda fly­over col­lapsed two years ago. The re­main­ing por­tion of the un­fin­ished fly­over stands in eerie tes­ti­mony to the loss of 50 lives. even to a layper­son, what re­mains of the bridge looks dan­ger­ous. it blocks win­dows, passes through bal­conies and por­ti­cos, chok­ing the res­i­den­tial area. in 2016, a com­mit­tee led by then chief sec­re­tary Ba­sudeb Ban­er­jee had sug­gested that the fly­over be torn down. early this year, a team of iit Kharag­pur pro­fes­sors had sec­onded that opin­ion. The re­port deemed the soil poor and un­suit­able to hold up the pil­lars. But no ac­tion has been taken.

Biswas says that the skewed ge­om­e­try and steep gra­di­ent of the fly­over are un­de­sir­able. “This is a typ­i­cal prob­lem in con­gested cities like Kolkata,” he says. “Lack of space com­pels engi­neers to fol­low the same align­ment as ground level. align­ment of bridges as at the el­e­vated level is un­wanted but un­avoid­able. These bridges have to be built be­cause there are many pri­vate ve­hi­cles. Mass tran­sit sys­tems will bring down the pres­sure of pri­vate ve­hi­cles.”

The state PWD had floated sev­eral ten­ders for the re­pair and main­te­nance of the Ma­jer­hat bridge prior to its col­lapse. The lat­est ten­der was is­sued in april for re­pairs, re­fur­bish­ing and main­te­nance of the bridge. The work was sup­posed to be­gin in au­gust and end in six to seven months. no com­pany had re­sponded to the first three ten­ders. Only one agency re­sponded to the fourth but it quoted 15 per­cent more than the es­ti­mated project cost. The project never took off. RITES had ob­served that in­stead of re­mov­ing old lay­ers, fresh patch­work was done, which in­creased thick­ness and ul­ti­mately the load of the bridge.

“re­pair­ing an old bridge is a very metic­u­lous job re­quir­ing a lot of ef­fort, skilled per­son and ma­chin­ery but the profit mar­gin is not very high,” says Majumdar.

su­jan chakraborty of cpi (M) and op­po­si­tion leader in the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly at­trib­uted the re­cent spate of dis­as­ters to the state gov­ern­ment’s clue­less­ness about its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. “It took them sev­eral days to fig­ure out which depart­ment was to be held re­spon­si­ble af­ter the Ma­jer­hat bridge caved in,” he says. “The gov­ern­ment is so busy mak­ing cos­metic changes to the city that they over­look the much­needed restora­tions for its struc­tures.”

As a part of a state beau­ti­fi­ca­tion drive, flower tubs had been placed on some bridges. su­jan chakraborty says that the ad­di­tional load was not ac­counted for when the bridges were de­signed and planned. “When we raised the is­sue with them, they said that we were get­ting in the way of progress of Ben­gal,” he says. af­ter the col­lapse of Ma­jer­hat bridge, all tubs were re­moved fol­low­ing di­rec­tions from the chief min­is­ter. “The ex­tra load has def­i­nitely dam­aged the bridge to some ex­tent. it was there for the past few years.”

Firhad Hakim, min­is­ter in charge, ur­ban de­vel­op­ment and mu­nic­i­pal af­fairs, and aroop Biswas, min­is­ter in charge of PWD, could not be reached for com­ment. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to a source, the Kmda and PWD have con­sti­tuted a com­mit­tee to as­sess the health of bridges and has called on in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tants for their ex­per­tise. “They are work­ing to fast-track re­pairs and main­te­nance,” he says.

The state PWD could learn from the rail­ways: teams of engi­neers in­spect rail­way bridges daily. Not a sin­gle train is al­lowed to pass over a bridge that has not re­ceived the day’s all-clear from its in­spect­ing team.

Puja bhat­tachar­jee

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