Morbi, a dusty, ugly industrial town in Gujarat’s Saurashtra belt, had one saving grace—a charming 140-year-old suspension bridge over the river Machchhu. Built by Waghji Thakur (1858-1922), the erstwhile ruler of Morbi, the bridge connected his two palaces located on either side of the river. Over time, as concrete bridges came up, the “jhulta pool” (hanging bridge), as it is known, became a popular tourist spot.
On October 30, 2022, the bridge broke under the strain of hundreds of Diwali holiday-makers walking on it. As per government figures, 141 people died when they fell into the river after the cables snapped. Fifty-five of the dead were children. The bridge has a capacity for 150, but reportedly 650 entry tickets were sold on the evening of the collapse.
The incident has exposed the negligence of the Morbi municipality, as the bridge was reportedly opened before it received a “fit for use” certificate. An initial forensic report has also found that during the recent renovation, only the floor boards were replaced and not the old cables. While nine people have been arrested in connection with the incident, including ticket sales personnel, the authorities have strangely turned a blind eye to the owners of Oreva Group, the company that was operating and maintaining the bridge and had been given the renovation contract. A week after the incident, the owners remained “missing”. Moreover, their names are not on the FIR.
A rights activist in Ahmedabad said Morbi was an example of administrative callousness. “Who cares if a two-year-old child of a driver in a far-flung small town dies in a bridge collapse? It is just a number for them. The only reason the tragedy and victims got attention is because of the upcoming elections,” he said.
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home State, the Assembly election is to be held on December 1 and 5. Perhaps the reason why the State administration worked swiftly to ensure that the injured received medical treatment and survivors and families of the dead got compensation immediately.
Modi went to Morbi on November 1 and promised every assistance to the affected. A five-member investigation committee has been formed. A week after the tragedy, the Gujarat High Court said it was a “disheartening incident” and took suo motu cognisance of the case, issuing notices to the State government and the State Human Rights Commission asking them to produce a report on the incident by November 14.
“We have a good hospital, but there were no rafts or lifesaver tubes. We pulled people out of the river and carried them up the slope to jeeps that took them to hospital. The ambulances and navy came later. By that time many had drowned,” said Dinesh Rabari, a worker in the dairy business. “The government worked quickly once it knew Modi was coming. If it was not for the election, I don’t think we would have got this attention.” Local people agree with Rabari but for now are grateful for the help coming their way.
Commenting on the larger issue of safety measures in public areas, Shirish Patel, a civil engineer whose firm does infrastructure audits, said: “Unless public servants are held accountable in some way—there can be punitive measures as simple as withholding promotion for the next five years—they will continue to take the lazy way out, which is to blame either the consultant or the contractor, while taking no responsibility for their choice of either.” Patel, who has designed two major flyovers in Mumbai, said: “Technical people in small towns should have access to skilled professionals with experience at the State level, who can serve in an advisory capacity without diminishing the responsibility of safety and maintenance at the local level.”
October 30 was a Sunday, a day for family outings. This explains why there were so many women and children among the victims. Ashwin Adiyal, 30, has been using the bridge since he was a child. A worker in a clock factory in Morbi, Adiyal said walking on the bridge was one of his favourite activities. “The bridge was closed for renovation for eight months. It opened for visitors soon after Diwali. My friends and I were excited and decided to go on Sunday evening,” he said. “We saw hundreds of people coming from the ticket counter. It was the Diwali crowd; the city was full of people visiting relatives.”
Adiyal described how some people were making the bridge sway intentionally. “I was not even half way across when we heard a loud noise, then two more loud bangs and the floor fell. I held on to a cable and hung on. My arms could not hold on after 10 minutes. I fell near the river bed, which is rocky. My leg broke. Rescue workers pulled me up and took me to the hospital. It was getting dark and people were screaming for help. I could see some of them drowning. Many were children too young to save themselves. Those visions are haunting,” said Adiyal.
Sundari Zala lost her two daughters and their husbands, as well as three grandchildren aged 4,6, and 12 in the accident. “They had come from Rajkot to spend Diwali with us. As my daughters had grown up near the bridge, when they heard it had reopened, they took the children to see it. I don’t want anything from the government. I just want my children back. The girls were not even 30,” she said, pointing to their framed photographs.
Preeti Zala is Sundari’s daughter-in-law. “My sister-in-law took my son along with her to see the bridge. I ran to the river when I heard of the accident. I did not find my child among those rescued, so I rushed to the hospital. He was already dead. He was so small, he must have drowned immediately.”
A similar story unfolds in the Raiyani household. Kunjal, 13, along with her three aunts and five cousins died when the bridge collapsed.
A police officer in Morbi (who requested not to be named) said that preliminary investigations have revealed that the bridge was not strong enough to withstand the weight of the almost 600 people on it. It broke from the middle, where it would be the weakest.
At the centre of the incident is Oreva, a Rs.800-crore company better known as the makers of Ajanta wall clocks. The company website says they are leading manufacturers of lighting products, e-bikes, and electronic products such as calculators. According to the chief officer of Morbi municipality, Sandeepsinh Zala, Oreva has maintained the bridge from 2008 to 2018. The company was reasssigned the contract in March 2022.
Suresh Desai (name changed), a long-time businessman in Rajkot who is familiar with Oreva, said that the owner, Jaysukhbhai Patel, is from Morbi and close to the State’s ruling regime. Patel’s father, O.R. Patel, started the clock and telephone brand ORPAT, which morphed into Oreva. Desai claimed that the company was under financial stress and needed big projects. Frontline could not independently verify this.
Questions have obviously been raised regarding Oreva’s competence to maintain a bridge this size. Frontline tried to reach the company, without success. Its website does not list infrastructure or construction as one of its businesses. Authorities and the local police refused to comment on Oreva. According to local news reports, Oreva began restoration work on the bridge in March 2022 by subcontracting the job to a company called Dev Prakash Solutions.
Media reports have claimed that Oreva spent only a fraction of the Rs.2 crore said to have been paid to the company to restore the bridge. The police officer quoted earlier confirmed that preliminary investigations have revealed that the “restoration work” was essentially a paint job and replacement of the flooring. The cables had not been replaced or reinforced. “It appears they opened early in order to cash in on Diwali,” he said.
“A police officer in Morbi (unwilling to be named) said preliminary investigations have revealed that the bridge was not strong enough to withstand the weight of the almost 600 people on it.”
The FIR filed by the Morbi police has charged “the agency responsible for maintaining the bridge” and the “management agency” with culpable homicide not amounting to murder under IPC sections 304 and 308. It does not name Oreva, although the police officer also confirmed that Oreva has maintained and operated the bridge since 2008.
At a press conference, H.S. Panchal, additional public prosecutor in Morbi, said the contractors hired by Oreva were “unqualified” for the job. There are also accusations that the government gave the contract to Oreva without a competitive bid.
Morbi, a symbol
When this correspondent visited the site, all that was left of the jhulta pool was its main suspension cables, with the broken vertical wires and nets dangling mid-air. Broken floor boards, cables, and the net which formed its sides were piled up on the banks of the river. Significantly, Oreva Group signboards at the entry and exit point remain intact, their blue signage glowing in the dusty haze that envelopes the city.
Morbi is known as a tile and sanitaryware manufacturing hub, which houses approximately 2,000 companies in a 50 km radius. The area’s famous red mud was used in earlier times to make roof tiles and bricks. Gujarat’s famed entrepreneurial communities turned Morbi into the largest manufacturing centre of ceramic tiles in the world. As Kanha Rabari, a driver who has lived in Morbi all his life, said, Morbi is one place where employment is not an issue.
The city was once one of the 100 tiny kingdoms that gave the region the name Saurashtra. Its rulers built schools, colleges, a railway line, and a few stunning buildings, including Mani Mandir, another tourist attraction. The State has just about preserved some of these heritage structures. For the rest, Morbi is symbolic of everything that is wrong with India’s small cities: poor roads, haphazard development, open sewers, garbage dumps, and lack of greenery. The city has only one major hospital, where the injured were taken that fateful day, and it has a massive temple complex coming up on the banks of the Machchhu.
- On October 30, 2022, a 140-year-old suspension bridge over the river Machchhu in Gujarat’s Morbi broke under the strain of hundreds of Diwali holiday-makers walking on it.
- The incident has exposed the negligence of the Morbi municipality, as the bridge was reportedly opened before it received a “fit for use” certificate.
- Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Morbi on November 1 and promised every assistance to the affected. The upcoming Assembly election in Gujarat might be the reason why the State administration worked swiftly to ensure that the injured received medical treatment and survivors and families of the dead got compensation immediately.
- At the centre of the incident is Oreva, a Rs.800-crore company better known as the makers of Ajanta wall clocks. Questions have obviously been raised regarding its competence to maintain a bridge this size.
- The FIR filed by the Morbi police has charged “the agency responsible for maintaining the bridge” and the “management agency” with culpable homicide not amounting to murder under IPC sections 304 and 308. It does not name Oreva.