West Bengal bridge collapse

Flyover collapse and many questions

Print edition : September 28, 2018

The section of Majerhat bridge that collapsed. Photo: AFp

The collapse of the Majerhat bridge, one of the busiest flyovers of Kolkata, has once again exposed gross negligence on the part of the Trinamool Congress government. On September 5, a 40-metre stretch of the flyover came crashing down, taking along with it five cars, three bikes and a minibus. While one motorist died on the spot, two more bodies were recovered later from the debris. Well over 20 people were seriously injured.

The first casualty was Soumen Bag, a man in his twenties, who was riding his two-wheeler across the bridge when the collapse took place. There was a makeshift shed under the bridge which was being used by the workers of the ongoing Metro Rail project. Two of the workers, Pranab Dey (24) and Gautam Mandal (45), were crushed to death when the bridge fell on the shed.

Constructed in 1965, the Majerhat bridge is the most important flyover in south Kolkata, connecting Behala to southern Kolkata. Traffic on the flyover gets particularly heavy during office hours.

This is the second time in two years that people have lost their lives due to a bridge collapse. On March 31, 2016, 27 people were killed when a flyover that was under construction in central Kolkata came crashing down. Coming as it did just days before the Assembly elections, it was a major embarrassment to the ruling party. It revealed a nexus between Trinamool leaders and the subcontractors engaged in the construction of the bridge. However, the State government does not seem to have drawn any lessons from the disaster. According to local residents, the Majerhat bridge collapse was an accident that was waiting to happen. The government took pains to paint the bridge blue and white (the favourite colours of the government that adorns all public offices and infrastructure), but, apparently, it did not ensure proper maintenance of the bridge. “This is such an old bridge and such a busy flyover, but we have never seen any maintenance work being done on it. We could tell the bridge was in a bad way,” said a resident.

In April, a tender was floated for the “surface repairing of the bridge”. It stated: “The work is URGENT in nature and agency entrusted for it will have to complete the work within stipulated time without any failure.” However, nothing had been done in the previous four months before the bridge collapsed. There were several warnings about the condition of the flyover that had gone unheeded by the government. As early as 2015, an audit of the bridge by the State Public Works Department warned that the bridge was unsafe.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that a probe would be conducted by a committee headed by the State Chief Secretary Malay De, and “action will be taken against those whose negligence caused the accident”. She even suggested that the Metro Rail work going on adjacent to the bridge could also be a reason for the collapse. “Metro Rail construction work was on in the area and local people have often felt tremors and complained about it. We are not overlooking any of the probable reasons for the collapse,” she said.

However, the Kolkata Project Implementation Unit of the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited refuted the Chief Minister’s suggestion. A statement issued by A.K. Roy, Chief Project Manager/ Line, said: “The collapse of the Majerhat ROB girder over canal portion is a mid span failure of RCC girder…. There is no relationship of Metro construction with this mid span failure…. In fact, condition of piers on both ends are a clear indication of this.” Roy also pointed out that the Metro foundation work had been completed “long back” (that is, more than one year ago).

According to the Chief Minister, there were as many as 20 bridges in West Bengal that required immediate attention. “A total of 20 bridges were found to have outlived their life. Repairs will be taken up without waste of time,” said Mamata Banerjee.