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HC On Morbi Bridge Collapse: Largesse Of The State

| Updated: November 15, 2022 15:20

The Morbi municipality and the Gujarat government faced some tough questions from the high court, which is hearing the case of the bridge collapse in Morbi that killed over 130 people on October 30.

The Gujarat High Court slammed the Morbi municipality for “acting smart” after it was told that the municipality was not represented in the court by any officials on Tuesday despite a notice.

The court also demanded to know from the state government why bids for the renovation of the 150-year-old bridge were not issued. “The municipality, a government body, has defaulted, which ultimately killed 135 people,” the court said as a preliminary observation. It asked the government officials to provide details on whether any condition for certifying fitness of the bridge before its reopening was part of the agreement, and who was responsible for it.

The Morbi municipality had given the 15-year contract to Oreva Group, best known for the Ajanta brand of wall clocks. “The state shall also place on record reasons why disciplinary proceedings against the chief officer of the municipality aren’t commenced,” the court demanded to know.

‘LARGESSE OF THE STATE’

Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court, Aravind Kumar, slammed the government, saying: “The largesse of the state seems to have been granted without there being any tender floated in this regard. Why was the tender for the repair work of a public bridge not floated? Why weren’t bids invited?” Chief Justice Aravind Kumar asked the Chief Secretary, the state’s top bureaucrat, at the opening hearing of the case that will be heard on Wednesday too.

“How was an agreement for such an important work completed in just one-and-a-half pages?” the Chief Justice asked. “Was the largesse of the state given to Ajanta company without any tender being floated?” the court asked.

It asked for the basis on which the bridge was being operated by the company after June 2017 “even when (the contract signed in 2008) was not renewed”. A new agreement was signed this year.

The court had taken note of the tragedy on its own and sought replies from at least six departments. Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh J Shastri are hearing the matter.

So far, only some staff of the contracted company have been arrested, while the top management has not faced action, nor have any officers been held accountable for the bridge having been reopened ahead of the renovation schedule.

The court asked for files of the contract from the first day to be submitted in a sealed envelope. 

The government has submitted that it worked at “lightning speed and saved many lives”. “Nine people have been arrested, and if anybody else is found to be guilty, we’ll definitely book them,” a government lawyer said. It submitted that monetary compensation has been give too: The state announced Rs 4 lakh to the kin of the deceased and Rs 50,000 for the injured. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who visited the disaster site in his home state, announced Rs 2 lakh each from the central government for families of the dead.  

In the order on Tuesday, the court directed the Principal District Judge of Morbi to appoint a bailiff to a notice to the civic body. It noted that, though the state has filed an affidavit, some clarifications were needed about the contract.

“The list of chronological events would indicate that MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) was signed on June 16, 2008, between the Collector and the contractor,” it noted. 

“This was to operate, maintain, manage and collect rent in respect of the suspension bridge. The said period expired on June 15, 2017. Thus the moot question would be: Under this MoU, who had been fixed the responsibility to certify the fitness of the bridge… After the term was over in 2017, what steps were taken by the Morbi civic body and the Collector to float a tender?” the court said.

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