Metro crash

Print edition : August 14, 2009
in New Delhi

Rescue work in progress after a girder collapsed at a DMRC construction site on July 12, killing six people. The next day, three cranes that were being used to clear the debris collapsed.-RAMESH SHARMA

THE much-celebrated Metro Railway of Delhi has been in the news since mid-July, this time for the wrong reasons. After accidents on two consecutive days, Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) officials had a hard time explaining to the media and the political community how they happened. On July 12, a launching girder came crashing down in Zamrudpur near a posh South Delhi location on the elevated Central Secretariat-Badarpur line, killing six workers and leaving around 20 people injured. The next day, three cranes clearing the debris of the first accident crashed, leaving six people injured.

In October 2008, a metro bridge collapsed in the Laxmi Nagar area of East Delhi, killing two people and injuring many. As the national capital prepares to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010, there are fears that the rush to meet deadlines before the event is causing safety lapses that lead to such accidents.

E. Sreedharan, DMRC Chairman, who is associated with the success of the project and is something of a middle-class icon, resigned after the latest mishap. Though the resignation was not accepted, it came as a shock and enhanced the impact of the accident in the public mind.

Sreedharan, who visited the accident site, said the mishap came as a big jolt to him as it was much bigger in proportion than the accident in Laxmi Nagar. I am not directly responsible [for this], but as the head of the organisation I have to take moral responsibility, he said. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, however, rejected his resignation, and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi persuaded him to continue in his post. Lieutenant Governor Tejendra Khanna and Union Urban Development Minister S. Jaipal Reddy also asked him to stay on.

Sheila Dikshit has promised that safety parameters will not be violated in the rush to meet deadlines, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not in the mood to let the matter rest. Even the Delhi Cabinet, however, seems divided on how the inquiry into the twin accidents should be conducted. While the Chief Minister favours full authority and independence for the DMRC, her Ministers such as Arvinder Singh Lovely, who is in-charge of the Transport Department, have suggested that the DMRC should not be let free and that a committee set up by the Delhi government should probe the incidents. I have asked the Transport Commissioner to prepare a report on the matter. Depending on the findings, we will then take it up with the Delhi Cabinet, Lovely said. However, Sheila Dikshit said, There is no need for a separate committee. The DMRC is a responsible body. We do not need to interfere in its work.

Meanwhile, the DMRC has set up a high-level technical committee, which includes experts such as A.K. Nagpal, Professor of Civil Engineering at IIT Delhi, and Professor Steve Lowry of the Delhi College of Engineering.

In the midst of a political backlash, with a belligerent Opposition and disgruntled Congressmen keen to settle old scores, Sheila Dikshit seems to have held her ground and decided to move on with the project so that it meets the deadlines.

The question that has stayed off most public debates is: how serious was the crack that had developed in the pillar that crashed on July 12? Construction workers, it appears, had been complaining about the crack for a long time. They feared that the cracked pillar would not be able to support the weight of heavy machines. Indeed, work at the site had been stopped for a few days so that the crack could be investigated. But it was resumed after a few days after a solid test on the pillar. According to the DMRC, the test did not reveal anything serious.

A construction worker present at the site told Frontline: We told them that the crack was there and that if it was not corrected the pillar would be faulty and would cause the segment to come crashing down now it has happened. DMRC spokesperson Anuj Dayal refuted the allegation when he spoke to the media. Ten segments were to be erected on the stretch, of which five had been completed. When the sixth segment was being erected, the launching girder collapsed due to disbalance, causing a portion of the bridge to fall, he said.

DMRC Chairman E. Sreedharan at the accident site on July 13.-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Sheila Dikshit also dismissed the suggestion of a major defect in the pillar. The fault, perhaps, had to do something with the sharp turn that the Metro construction had to accommodate there at the site, she said in an interview to Frontline.

However, the Comptroller and Auditor Generals report on July 18 has criticised the DMRC for not having solid testing mechanisms and for violating several safety parameters. The report, which came when the wounds from the accidents were still fresh, delivered yet another blow to the DMRCs credibility. The key findings of the draft audit of the DMRC include shortcomings and lapses in the systems and procedures and issues relating to quality control and land acquisition in excess of project requirements in some areas. It said that the DMRC had been conducting several tests in non-accredited laboratories and violating noise pollution levels. However, the DMRC countered the allegations and strongly defended its practices, denying any relaxation in the testing procedures.

But how accountable are the contractors employed by such projects? In this case, the contractor is Gammon India, a company that already has a dent in its record it was held responsible for the collapse of a scaffolding at the construction site of a flyover in Hyderabad in September 2007. A committee set up by the Andhra Pradesh government blamed negligence on the part of Gammon India for the accident. The company was forced to pay huge compensations to the affected people and forfeited a major share of its profits in the project.

Speaking to a television channel, Sreedharan said that not many contractors had bid for the DMRC tender because most major contractors had their hands full at a time of large-scale infrastructure development in the country. He said that he found himself in a situation where he had to persuade Gammon India to take up construction of the Metro Rail line stretching from Central Secretariat to Badarpur on the outskirts of Delhi as the project had to be completed before the Commonwealth Games. DMRC sources said the agency had also been unable to replace inefficient sub-contractors.

Will such companies be taken to task if they are found guilty? The question has no easy answers. The big contractors pass on part of the work to subcontractors, who again pass on part of their job to even smaller ones. In the process, safety measures suffer because there is not enough monitoring. In a hurry to meet deadlines, the monitoring mechanism gets further weakened. Even after a mishap, these companies cannot be asked to leave as that would upset the project schedule. After a similar accident in East Delhi, investigations held Afcons Infrastructure responsible. Even then the DMRC could only blacklist it from the tendering process for the future, not bar it from proceeding with the work it had already started.

Since India does not have any centralised law to maintain and monitor safety standards in construction, it becomes imperative for the DMRC to keep checking the quality of work carried out by these companies. Sreedharan has promised to be stricter from now on, but such a complex network of contracting perhaps needs a more structured monitoring mechanism.

The Metro Railway in Delhi is a 50:50 partnership between the State and Central governments. In a way, this means that neither government is directly in charge of the project, and the DMRC holds sole responsibility. In such a situation, the lack of accountability is a major issue, whether it is construction accidents or problems in accounting. The DMRC gets huge concessions in the loans it takes. Media reports have said that the subsidies it receives every year cross Rs.1,000 crore.

Even if the DMRCs piety is taken for granted, the fact remains that there is no one to keep tabs on the Rs.10,600-crore project being built with public money.

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