Construction on Kolkata’s Vivekananda Road flyover, a section of which collapsed on Thursday, leading to loss of life, had begun in 2009 and was beset with problems from the start. Its story is specific to Kolkata, but also one that could be replicated across urban India. The JNNURM/ Amrut project had missed its original deadline of August 2010, but the chief minister suddenly announced last November that it would be completed by February 2016.
Political diktat to finish a project, then 62 months behind schedule, within the next three months was arguably daunting for the engineers and perhaps opened the door to technical and quality compromises. The delay was caused by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority’s inability to ascertain where one ramp would land on the Strand Road, coupled with its failure to obtain the Kolkata Port Trust’s permission for the use of land for the other ramp. On Thursday, engineers still didn’t have the answers. But the question also is: Given north Kolkata’s narrow, heavily congested, asymmetrical roads, why was construction allowed in the daytime, without traffic and pedestrian restrictions? Investigations will determine the existence and extent of structural and design flaws, but it’s not rocket science to surmise that an incomplete structure, with on-again, off-again work, would wear faster without proper maintenance. The possibility of substandard material — the bane of Indian construction — cannot be ruled out, and the Hyderabad-based IVRCL, which was constructing the flyover, was already on a railway ministry watchlist.
The disaster in Kolkata is yet another reminder of the infrastructure deficit that India’s metros struggle with, and the risks of ad hoc answers to that deficit. At a time when the Smart Cities mission is drawing attention at home and abroad, the message from Kolkata is: Not without proper planning and regulation. India is moving to its cities, and projects and programmes like Smart Cities and Amrut are meant to address the policy and planning vacuum. Yet, without ensuring adherence to norms and standards, and swift and sure punishment for violations, new safe cities cannot be built nor older, overburdened ones, straining to cope with the pace of change, resuscitated.
In Kolkata’s case, the political blamegame makes a mockery of accountability in the immediate aftermath. If India wants to live in smart cities, it must think seriously about the city. To begin with, governments and citizens must start taking ownership of the urban challenge.