ON the 1st of April, a flyover that had been under construction for several years in Kolkata, collapsed in a crowded commercial area, trapping pedestrians and vehicles under concrete and metal. This deadly calamity killed 26 and severely injuring nearly a 100 people.
The flyover collapse highlighted India’s chronic lack of preparedness for calamities, with rescue cranes arriving hours after the collapse, and ordinary citizens attempting in vain to help those trapped and slowly dying under the debris.
On the eve of West Bengal Assembly polls, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee predictably washed her hands off responsibility for the whole incident and blamed the previous Left Front Government.
It is true that the LF Government had awarded the contract for the construction of the Vivekananda flyover to the Hyderabad-based IVRCL in 2007. Since then, however, the company came on the Railway Ministry’s watch-list for non-performance, and was blacklisted twice by different government departments in Jharkhand, and faced questions in Andhra Pradesh as well. Why did Mamata Banerjee’s own Government not monitor the flyover construction more closely, given the company’s dubious track record?
The flyover was being constructed under the central government’s JNNURM/ Amrut project. It had missed its original deadline of August 2010, but the CM Mamata Banerjee announced last November that its new deadline was February 2016, ostensibly so that she could boast of its completion before the Assembly elections. While the Government placed a political burden of haste on the project, why could it not monitor the project for compliance with all required safety norms? Why were pedestrians and traffic allowed on the narrow, congested roads while the construction was underway? Was the long-delayed structure checked regularly for design and structural flaws as well as for poor maintenance? Why were the complaints of local residents that the flyover came dangerously close to their own homes, not taken seriously?
The IVRCL has called the collapse an “act of God” – thereby washing their own hands too off any responsibility and accountability for criminal negligence. And given the track record of impunity enjoyed by private companies – Uphaar cinema and Carbide-Dow in Bhopal are glaring instances - that have played God with the lives of people, IVRCL also has reason to feel confident. ‘Private-Public-Partnership’ after all has come to mean public patronage for private profit and plunder. With the Government acting to minimize the accountability of the private partners and to slacken on compliance of labour and safety norms, the private companies have no incentive to invest in safety or to abide by norms.
The BJP too is trying to make political capital on the collapse, using it to argue that West Bengal needs the BJP ‘model of development.’ That fact, however, is that the collapse of the flyover highlights the fatal ‘design flaw’ in the ruling class development model itself, especially the PPP model. NCRB data shows that in the past five years, seven people were killed every day in structure collapses in India. Collapse of structures like flyovers resulted 47.3% of such deaths, while collapse of residential buildings accounted for 37.3% of such deaths. Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat have the worst record, reporting more than 150 deaths each year. The famed ‘Gujarat model’ of the BJP is no exception to the general trend; one may recall the collapse of the under-construction flyover in Surat in June 2014.
In West Bengal, too, there have been such collapses in the past, too. An under-construction flyover collapsed in Ultadanga in 2013; the casualties were fewer only because the collapse took place before dawn when the area was deserted. The victims of the 2011 AMRI Hospital fire in Kolkata still await justice.
In the wake of every engineering or medical disaster, anti-reservationist propaganda blames the so-called 'privileging' of caste over merit. Such propaganda is fond of arguing that reservations in the private sector would jeopardize ‘quality’ and lead to lack of safety. In fact, the systematic impunity for private companies who only recognize the imperative of corporate greed over any safety norms, is the single biggest reason for the epidemic of avoidable calamities like structure collapses, urban fires, and medical calamities.
The flyover syndrome (along with the bullet train) itself is a metaphor of the elitist model of development which prioritises the interests of the affluent at the cost of the needs and interests of ordinary citizens. The experience of cities the world over, as well as India’s own experience go to show that flyovers are not necessarily the best solutions to the problems of traffic congestion in most Indian cities, yet the many variants of Smart City schemes prioritise flyovers over public transport and pedestrian safety.
Take the example of Chennai, which witnessed a flyover construction boom in the last decade or so. Studies have shown that while each flyover cost around 5 times a normal road, and the total cost of flyovers could have instead been spent on 7,000 public transport buses or more than 2,000 km of dedicated cycle lanes or an extensive bus rapid transit system, flyovers have not really solved the problem of traffic congestion. The reason is obvious: flyovers act as an incentive to buy more cars. In fact, it was the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) that pushed for construction of flyovers – precisely in the hope that these would boost automobile sales. Governments that allow transport policy to be shaped by automobile manufacturers are ignoring the well-established fact that a smoothly functioning public transport system that encourages people to choose public transport over cars, is the only lasting solution to traffic congestion as well as dangerous levels of pollution.
Cities the world over are showing a drop in automobile use and a marked preference for public transport. The truly ‘smart’ cities are the ones that prioritise the needs of the poorest citizens; that invest in public transport and ensure that roads and public spaces are friendly to pedestrians and the poor. The ‘flyover’ is a metaphor for a model of urban development that bypasses and flies right over the mass of people whose lives and whose needs – for housing, transport, sanitation, basic services – are rendered invisible. This model of development is what the Uruguayan writer, the late Eduardo Galeano, described as ‘A bridge with no river/A tall façade with no building/ A sprinkler on a plastic lawn/An escalator to nowhere/ A highway to the places the highway destroyed…’
It is imperative that we take lessons from the collapse of the flyover in Kolkata, and ensure that it is the last of such accidents that have become routine in our country. The owners of the company responsible for the construction must not only face criminal charges and a timebound trial, but must be made to pay for the costs of rescue and rehabilitation. The role of the concerned Ministers and political leaders must also be investigated so that they also can face appropriate action. And, while ending the culture of impunity of private companies at public cost, there must also be a reappraisal and overhaul of the ‘Smart City’ model of urban planning, so that the needs and interests of the poor and ordinary citizens is prioritized over the needs and interests of the private profiteers and the rich and privileged.