It was in the late 1980s that the Left Front government sought the help of the Japanese government to work out ways to ease Kolkata’s traffic congestion. Travel within the city had become a nightmare, with traffic jams stretching for miles. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) suggested the state government build at least a dozen flyovers.
With JICA committing economic packages to be routed through the government of India, the flyovers began to be taken up one after the other in the city. The under-construction Vivekananda flyover that collapsed on Thursday, killing 27, was one of the flyovers coming up under the JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission).
However, it was not the first whose construction remained surrounded in controversy, or politics. The most glaring example of that is Kolkata’s longest flyover, whose 4.5-km main section connects E M Bypass to the city centre at Park Circus.
Launched in 2003, the project saw no work for 10 years due to lack of funds. Finally, the Trinamool Congress government set a deadline. From then on, construction was finished at a frantic pace. A delighted Mamata Banerjee christened the Rs 450-crore flyover ‘Maa’ — after her winning ‘Maa, Maati, Maanush’ slogan.
A day after the Vivekananda flyover collapse, while campaigning in Jangalmahal which goes to polls in the first phase of voting on Monday, the Chief Minister accused the previous Left front government of clearing faulty flyover plans, and leaving these unfinished. Dubbing the flyovers “killer”, she said her government had been forced to shoulder their liability.
Mamata also claimed her government had been seeking detailed plans of the project, but the contractor, IVRCL, had dilly-dallied. IVRCL officials, three of whom were arrested on Friday for criminal negligence while others are being questioned, remained unavailable for comment.
However, the record of the Hyderabad-headquartered IVRCL speaks for itself. Given the contract for building the Vivekananda flyover in 2007, it has been under the Railway Ministry’s scanner for non-performance, been blacklisted at least twice by different government departments in neighbouring Jharkhand, and escaped the same fate only narrowly in Andhra Pradesh.
IVRCL officials’ first reaction to the Kolkata tragedy was calling it an “act of God”, seeking to portray it as a natural calamity.
For those seeing sheer negligence on the part of the firm, a board at one of IVRCL’s site offices, among those sealed by the Kolkata Police now, is more evocative. It reads: “Today’s pain, tomorrow’s gain.”
On Friday, two officials including a chief engineer of the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA), which was responsible for supervising work at the Vivekananda flyover, were suspended. A sub-contractor to whom IVRCL had given some parts of the flyover work is also being investigated. The company has denied any compromise with quality of work, or a design defect.
Urban Development Minister Firhad Hakim, visiting the collapse site on Friday, refused to comment on charges that Trinamool Congress leader Smita Bakshi’s family firm had been awarded parts of the contract such as supplying labour.
Forensic teams that collected samples of construction material from the site have identified pillar no. 40 as the point of the collapse. About 60 pillars of the flyover had been constructed, and cracks were reported on the girder of this pillar, standing at the crossing of Chitpur Road and Ganesh Talkies.
A top police source said, “Interrogation of workers engaged on the night before the collapse indicated that engineers at the spot had tried to apply quick-fix solutions when some rivets and bolts were found cracked. Welding teams were engaged and concrete mix was applied. The cracks should have been looked into more thoroughly.” Police are trying to trace the engineers present that night.
A professor in the Civil Engineering department at IIT Kharagpur, Bhargab Maitra, who is a roads and bridges expert and a consultant on NHAI projects, says, “Three issues need to be looked into — if there were any faults in the design, if there was a discrepancy between the design and implementation of the project, and if quality parameters were met. But we can determine this only after an investigation.”
Another road expert says, “Accidents arising from technical faults can occur. But what I find alarming is that there didn’t seem to have been any road safety measures in place in case of the flyover, which are mandatory for any construction, especially overhead. The steel girders used were of such weight that even cranes were not able to lift them. Even if a beam were to fall, no one would be able to get out alive.”
He adds, “Why was this area not cordoned off? How was the traffic allowed? There were people underneath the flyover, vehicles parked there, vehicles plying there. There are prescribed safety norms of the Ministry of Roads and Surface Transport that the contractor must adhere to.”
Ardhendu Sen, who was the chief secretary under CPM chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who laid the inaugural stone for the project, says there should not be politics over the tragedy. “If among five towers, one collapses, it is unlikely the fault lies in the design. The problem has come up in the past one-two months. A committee should investigate the matter.”
As for the hiring of IVRCL, Sen says the firm had come under scanner much later. “I believe (it was) in 2011, when the TMC was already in power.”
Ashok Bhattacharya, the urban development minister under the Left, admits the project didn’t take off under their government but says that was due to local resistance. “What has happened has to be the result of huge corruption. The syndicates that supply construction material are run by the TMC. We want a high-level inquiry.”
Vivek Kejriwal, who was formerly with infra firm IL&FS, says, “I can tell you this much, there were no issues with the tendering. It was completely transparent and, at the time, IVRCL was doing very well and was amongst the best bidders.”
Apart from local resistance as the flyover at many places almost touched houses, leading to petitions in court, the other reason for the delay in the project was non-availability of land free from encumbrances. Two major hurdles were at the Howrah Bridge end and at the approach to Nimtolla Ghat Street. Mamata had held meetings with Kolkata Port Trust officials to resolve the issue. Around 22 underground utility lines at 35 places had also slowed down work.
In March 2013, a JNNURM inspection report noted that “utility diversion and delay in receiving police permission” and “resistance from local business community” continued to hamper pace of the project.
In the first 18 months of the project, in fact, IVRCL could get only 23 per cent of the land. During this period, work was on for barely six hours (11 pm to 5 am). When the Chief Minister began pushing for speedy completion in November 2015, ahead of the polls, the flurry could be seen at the project site.
In the wake of the Vivekananda flyover collapse, experts have pointed out problems cropping up with other newly built flyovers. For instance, the Bagha Jatin flyover built during the Buddhadeb regime had to undergo repair after cracks came up; while a structural fault had been detected in another flyover from that time, the Chingrighata one, which is similar to Vivekananda in shape.
There are worries about the fate of the under-construction Parama flyover now. The longest in the city at 9.2 km, it will have the largest number of curves and ramps.
A top officer said the Urban Development Department is preparing to undertake a security audit of all the flyovers in the city. But that can only happen when the new government takes over, he said.
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