Kolkata Tragedy: Monumental Failure As A City, Not Just A Party

31/03/2016 7:22 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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DIBYANGSHU SARKAR via Getty Images
Indian rescue workers and volunteers try to free people trapped under the wreckage of a collapsed fly-over bridge in Kolkata on March 31, 2016. At least 14 people were killed and dozens more injured when a flyover collapsed in a busy Indian city on March 31, an official said, as emergency workers battled to rescue people trapped under the rubble. / AFP / Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

A flyover collapse in a congested city is a disaster in normal times. A flyover collapse in the middle of an election season is a catastrophe of a different order. Then the response is not just about ambulances, fire trucks and rescue crews. It’s also about a different kind of damage control. Some seek to exact electoral dividends. Some seek to minimize electoral fallout.

“The flyover collapse in Calcutta is a horrible tragedy. Let’s refrain from playing politics over it,” tweets Suhel Seth. It’s sage advice and Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien retweets it as well.

It is a tragedy but unlike a supercyclone or an earthquake, it’s a man-made tragedy. Flyovers do not collapse just like that. They collapse because someone made a mistake. Or someone cut corners. Or someone was in too much of a hurry. And too often politics helps paper over those sins of omission and commission if they were not responsible for them in the first place.

This has happened before on a smaller scale. In 2013 a huge chunk of the Ultadanga flyover collapsed in Kolkata as well.

The Vivekananda Road flyover that fell in Kolkata has had a long and troubled history. IVRCL, the firm contracted to build it, got the contract in February 2007. It was meant to be an 18-month contract worth Rs164 crore. 60 months later, The Telegraph reported one-third of the project remained to be done and IVRCL had admitted in a letter it was out of funds to buy material.

The flyover was being built over the protests of local residents who complained in an area as congested as that they would be able to reach out from their apartments and practically touch it. The location of the piers had to be changed to avoid some 22 utility lines that criss-cross the area. An engineer told the newspaper that in the first 18 months they only got 23 percent of the land.

This is the story of many complex urban infrastructure projects. It's so commonplace it’s not even frontpage news anymore. The collapse of this flyover merely puts the spotlight on this one. What’s sure to be pointed out over and over again is that the contract was awarded in 2009. That means it was awarded under CPM rule and was merely inherited by Trinamool.

Already the politicking has started.

And in that sense politics is well nigh unavoidable no matter what O’Brien tweets. This has happened before on a smaller scale. In 2013, a huge chunk of the Ultadanga flyover collapsed in Kolkata as well. Luckily, it happened at 4:30am when it was deserted and not in a congested market area like this one.

“The flyover was built in a hurry so that it could be inaugurated by then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee before the 2011 assembly elections,” said urban development minister Firhad Hakim. Nonsense, said his predecessor Ashok Bhattacharya. “There is no point in blaming the Left Front government. They should make a proper inquiry to see if the flyover was properly maintained.”

The image of a person, still alive, grasping for water, and unable to be rescued by the entire city administration should haunt all of us.

That was the blame game for a flyover accident in the dead of the night that left three people injured. This is a different ballgame altogether as the death toll keeps rising.

Already the politicking has started. Political leaders of all stripes have rushed to the scene in real time or virtually. The BJP’s Kailash Vijayvargiya is laying the blame on Mamata’s door saying “Mamata ji’s govt is responsible for this.”Adhir Chowdhury of the Congress is demanding the resignation of Firhad Hakim. Mamata Banerjee is on the scene taking pains to point out construction began “during CPM time not our time”. Passing the buck is the other side of the blame game.

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 that hospital in 2014. When the 2014 anniversary came around, the media noted that in 1,095 days, the only progress had been filing the chargesheet. Thus disaster site promises of “stringent action” tend to ring hollow.

But indeed let us leave the politics aside. Let us instead think about the images we are seeing on television.

A hand reaches out from under the concrete rubble. A helpless bystander hands it a bottle of water but cannot in any way lift the girder under which the person is trapped. The image of a person, still alive, grasping for water, and unable to be rescued by the entire city administration should haunt all of us. It is a monumental failure as a city, not just a party.

Our emergency response to a disaster can almost be more disastrous than the tragedy itself.

What should perturb us is that the chief minister managed to cancel her rally in Midnapore, several hours from Kolkata, and rush back to the scene before the cranes that could actually lift the humongous concrete girders could make it to the same accident site. Three hours after the flyover collapsed, the cranes were still coming.

That is what is horrifically scary. We cannot foresee disasters. But we can plan for the emergency response to them. All the neighbours being interviewed on television across channels had the same complaint--where was the administration, where were the cranes, where was help beyond the local good samaritans.

What we see on television in the middle of a metropolitan city is damning proof that our emergency response to a disaster can almost be more disastrous than the tragedy itself.

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