Kolkata flyover collapse: A disaster that was waiting to happen6 min read . Updated: 01 Apr 2016, 02:27 PM IST
Construction of flyovers and bridges and roads has always looked dodgy
A massive flyover collapses on a crowded street, pinning under it auto rickshaws, minibuses, pedestrians, traffic constables. If you turned on the news on Thursday, you would have seen people being extricated from the debris. A man stuck between two taxis, only his torso and head visible, pinned under iron girders waist down. There were hands reaching out from the debris, waving, hoping to be pulled out, asking for water. Severed limbs. And survivors lying on the floor in the hospital, next to each other.
This was in the heart of Kolkata, in Girish Park. This was a half-built flyover under which I’ve often driven. In 2014, a report (Read here) said that the flyover, which had been under construction for 60 months, was showing no signs of being completed. The report said that IVRCL, the company contracted by the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) to build the flyover, had told the government that it wanted additional funds to complete the project which was already 42 months past its deadline.
“Near the Ganesh Talkies crossing, a steel frame across the road looks more like a gate than a flyover pier, while only two spots for building piers are being cordoned off near Posta Bazar," read the report.
Yet, CMDA neither carried out checks nor monitored progress.
Residents had complained about the flyover being too close to their homes. But no one paid attention. After all, in Kolkata, it is common to have flyovers which are built at a distance of six feet to a building.
The standing joke after the Lower Circular Road flyover was built was that you could drive on it and lean through the classroom windows of my school La Martiniere and pick up a pencil from a student’s desk.
These are minor aesthetic details in the world of Kolkata’s flyovers, which take years to construct.
I suppose I’m more disturbed by this disaster than some others because it happened in a city I grew up in and on a road which I’ve travelled on. There is no tyranny of distance here. Also, if you’re from Kolkata, this is a situation which you’ve certainly expected to happen.
Construction of flyovers and bridges and roads has always looked dodgy. Our Metro took over 10 years to build. The only construction which seems to take place with great speed are our British-esque lamp posts, a fake Big Ben in Lake Town and, of course, various buildings being painted blue.
If only some of this effort at sprucing up the city had gone into checking the construction of this flyover. But there’s no media posturing to be achieved with that, so what’s the point?
When you look at the rescue operations underway, you realise that there’s little hope for any of us in a similar situation. There are no cranes in sight. It was an hour and 45 minutes before rescue teams turned up. When they did, they had to try and remove the iron girders by hand and with rods and then with gas-cutters. One of the gas-cutters set the surrounding area aflame.
Yes, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Army were there, but working under great constraints. There was no estimation of the number of vehicles or people under the collapsed flyover. Till seven hours later, no one could say whether a minibus—or two—was stuck underneath the debris.
If this is the state of rescue operations in a metropolitan city of India, God help the rest of India.
Speaking of God, K.P. Rao of IVRCL said, when asked about the flyover collapsing, “45% work was left, one girder missed & second one fell. It is nothing but God’s act." Locking him up and throwing away the key may help show him what divine intervention is.
The one silver lining though, was the media coverage. Well, some of it at least. Other than for India Today TV’s Manogya Loiwal, who asked a witness, “Aapko kitna gussa hai? (how angry are you?)", no one asked survivors or witnesses asinine and rhetorical questions. And contrary to what we’ve grown to expect, Times Now was the only channel that had an absolutely calm reporter asking relevant questions. That is till Newshour, when hell hath no fury like Arnab Goswami. But Times Now was also the only TV channel that didn’t cut to a cricket special, when every other news channel shifted to cricket programming. It was as if they had decided: enough of this disaster reporting.
Regional channels ABP Ananda and ETV Bangla reported the disaster calmly, both from the site as well as from the studio. The only moment of irony was while watching the news reporting on ETV News, which was interspersed with Trinamool Congress election ads sung by Anupam Roy. In between visuals of devastation, the ad would pop up and claim “Banglar mukh bodlechhey (the face of Bengal has changed for the better)" and “bhalo din aaschey (good days are coming)", with pictures of Bengal’s denizens smiling.
Which makes you wonder whether during coverage of disasters, news channels should report without ad breaks. Much like, should they carry on with their pre-scheduled sports or entertainment programming? But I suppose that’s expecting too much. And we should simply take solace from the fact that there was a certain objectivity to reporting on disasters and interviewing victims of these calamities, which we haven’t seen in some time.
The other silver lining—despite my cynicism—is to see the chief minister cancelling her political engagements and rushing to the disaster site. Of course, humanitarian concerns aside, I’m certain the effect of this man-made calamity on her vote bank can’t be ignored. But cynicism aside, it is a lesson for all our chief ministers and prime ministers. Mamata Banerjee, till I last watched the news at 10 pm, was reportedly still at the site. Columnist Sandip Roy, though, calls a spade a spade and a concerned Banerjee for what she is in his article (Read here). He writes: “The 2011 AMRI hospital fire in some ways showed Mamata Banerjee doing what she does best—be the neighbourhood didi, parked on the scene, almost micro-managing the operations. Whether it’s effective or gets in the way of professionals, it does send a psychological message to traumatized citizens that their chief minister is standing by them. But the AMRI fire also showed that despite all the rhetoric of no one being spared, very little happened to deliver justice to those whose relatives died in the fire. The case creeps along while AMRI quietly reopened the hospital in 2014."
The folks at the construction company will most probably go scot-free soon. The bottom line is that there is nothing to really find solace in this situation. It once again proves that all our politicians care about is talk and not action. And definitely no action which won’t get media coverage. So while the city keeps getting various makeovers and facelifts, there is no fitness plan being put in place to ensure that basic infrastructure improves.
I can only shudder at the images of the horror unfolding in Kolkata, my home town. The sorrow of it all is that we all know that once the media attention shifts, and news of the disaster stops percolating in, status quo will return in Kolkata, and in the state and the country’s preparedness for such calamities.