Under fire from the Gujarat High Court, the Morbi municipality has put the entire blame on the October 30 bridge collapse on the Oreva Group. It has told the HC bench of Chief Justice Arvind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh Shastri that Oreva reopened the bridge “without any prior approval and without informing the civic body about the repair work carried out”.
Oreva Group head Jaysukh Patel reopened the bridge with his family members on the Gujarati New Year Day, claiming it was good enough to last at least eight years. The bridge collapsed five days later, killing 135 people and injuring several others. Jaysukh Patel has not been seen in public since the incident.
Oreva, better known for manufacturing wall clocks, was given a contract of Rs 2 crore to refurbish the 145-year-old bridge. The police investigation has revealed that the company spent a measly Rs 12 lakh for the job. That’s just 6% of the total amount (Rs 2 crore) mandated for the bridge. The contract awarded to Oreva was for 15 years, which included maintenance of the bridge and the security for the same.
On November 16, the Gujarat HC had slammed the Morbi civic body, asking it to “not take the matter lightly”. The HC had directed the Morbi civic body to file its counter-affidavit in the matter or pay Rs 1 lakh cost.
In an affidavit submitted to the HC on Wednesday, the municipality also said that condition 4 of the March 8, 2022 agreement between the civic body and the company said: “It is for Ajanta (OREVA Group) to appropriately renovate and it is only thereafter that they would open it (the bridge) for the public at large, which would take minimum 8 to 12 months from the date of the agreement.”
The civic body submitted the affidavit before a division bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh Shastri which is hearing a suo motu case on the collapse of the bridge.
The British-era suspension bridge on the Machchhu river in Morbi town collapsed on October 30, five days after it was reopened following renovation, killing 135 people.
The HC had sought to know the reasons for allowing Oreva Group to use the bridge despite there being no approval for utilisation.
The Morbi municipality in its affidavit said as per a condition in a new agreement made on March 8, 2022 between the civic body and Ajanta Manufacturing (Oreva Group), the latter was required to “appropriately renovate” the bridge before opening it for the public at large.
Even when the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Rajkot collector (when Morbi was part of Rajkot) and the company had expired on August 15, 2017, the suspension bridge continued to be maintained and managed by the company, “in the absence of there being any new agreement” till it was closed for repair on March 8, 2022 when the new agreement was signed, the civic body said.
The company had started reminding the civic body of renewing the terms since January 2020 when it said it would “completely close down the suspension bridge from January 26, 2020 and thereafter, the company would not be responsible for any unfortunate accident with reference to the said suspension bridge,” the affidavit stated.
The bridge continued to remain in operation and on December 29, 2021, the company informed the then chief officer of Morbi municipality that the condition of the suspension bridge was “critical,” while requesting it to take a decision on the renewal of the 2007 MoU which expired way back in 2017, the affidavit said.
“On October 26, 2022, without any prior approval, the company reopened the suspension bridge for the public at large and that too without informing the Morbi Nagarpalika know about the kind of repairing work which was stated to have been carried out by the company, as well as without providing any independent third-party certificate/s relating to material testing, structure fitness, holding capacity and its stability,” the affidavit said.
While continuing to manage the bridge despite the expiry of the MoU terms on August 16, 2017, the company had flagged the issue of its condition, the civic body said.
In a communication dated January 9, 2020, the company intimated the authority that they would completely close down the suspension bridge from January 26, 2020 and thereafter, “the company would not be responsible for any unfortunate accident with reference to the said suspension bridge,” it said.
The company also expressed its readiness to continue to manage the bridge and wrote to the Morbi collector on five occasions that it would “not start the permanent repairing work of the suspension bridge” unless the agreement is executed, the civic body said.
“On December 29, 2021, the company informed the Chief Officer of Nagarpalika, that the condition of the suspension bridge is critical and hence, request was made to take a decision at the earliest,” stated the affidavit.
The Morbi municipality’s then Chief Officer SV Zala executed an agreement dated March 8, 2022 with the company, entrusting them “the entire management of the suspension bridge for a period of 15 years,” it said.