India bridge collapse: Gujarat court asks how contract was given to clock making company

A court in India has asked why a bridge renovation contract was awarded to a clock-making company, after the reopened structure collaped last month, killing 135 people in one of the country’s worst public safety disasters.

The 230m-long bridge, built during British colonial rule in the 1800s, had been closed for six months and reopened just a week before the tragedy took place on 30 October.

The suspension bridge, known as “Jhulta Pul” or hanging bridge, snapped, plunging dozens of people into the Machchhu river below.

According to eyewitnesses, the bridge collapsed following overcrowding by hundreds of people who had gathered there on account of the weekend as well as the Hindu festival of Chhath Puja.

On Tuesday, the Gujarat high court while hearing the suo moto case lashed out at the civic body for the manner in which the contract for renovation of the bridge was granted to the Gujarat-based Ajanta Manufacturing, a part of the Oreva Group.

The Morbi municipal authorities had awarded a 15-year contract to Oreva Group, which is best known for the Ajanta brand of wall clocks.

A bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh J Shastri wondered how “the largesse of the state was given to Ajanta without any tender being floated”.

“State took steps that are expected from it (after the incident) but the agreement signed between Morbi civic body and a private contractor (for bridge renovation) is just 1.5 pages,” the bench was quoted as saying by LiveLaw.

“No tender was invited. Why was the contract granted without inviting any tender?

The court also said that though the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the district collector of Rajkot and Ajanta to maintain the bridge expired in 2017, it continued to be maintained by the company.

“From 15/6/2017, for a period of 2 years, without there being an MoU or agreement or entrustment, the bridge in question was continued to be maintained by Ajanta company,” the bench noted.

“After the said contract expired, what steps were taken by the official authorities to call for expressions of interest or float a tender for a further period is not clear from the State’s affidavit?”

The bench also said that the civic body appeared to be “acting smart” as there was no representative in court during the hearing.

“The municipality, a government body, has defaulted, which ultimately killed 135 people,” the court said.

The court also posed a series of questions to the Gujarat state government led by prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The court wanted to know what steps were taken by the state to float a new tender as the 2017 MoU had expired.

It also asked officials to provide details to the court on whether any condition for certifying fitness of the bridge before its reopening was part of the agreement, and who the person responsible was, reported NDTV.

“The state shall also place on record reasons why disciplinary proceedings against chief officer of the civic body aren’t commenced,” it said.

It also asked why disciplinary proceedings against the chief officer of the civic body haven’t started.

Over a fortnight after the tragedy, nine people have been arrested including managers of Oreva group, ticket collectors, bridge repair contractors and three security guards.

None of the top management has faced any action.

With state elections less than a month away, the Gujarat government has also set up a five-member inquiry committee to probe the tragedy.