The winter sun is in a hurry to disappear in Gujarat where the heavyweights of Indian politics are pulling out all the stops to get the people to vote for them in the Assembly elections. The glitzy roadshows, teary-eyed appeals from loudspeakers, and promises of free electricity and world class schools have created an unprecedented din in what is dubbed a three-party race to power.
This is also the state where just a month ago, hundreds of people were fished out from a rocky riverbed, in which they fell after a bridge they were standing on collapsed due to government and contractor apathy. One hundred and thirty-five of those who fell into Morbi’s Machchu River on October 30 died.
The kin of the victims haven’t got justice. All they got was a meagre compensation. But there is hope in the form of the Gujarat High Court and its Chief Justice Aravind Kumar whose bench is hearing the case on a regular basis, and which is already coming down heavily on the state government and the Morbi municipality.
But there seems to be no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for the nine people arrested in the bridge collapse case. They have been identified as Deepak Parekh and Dinesh Dave, managers of Oreva Group that was awarded the contract to refurbish the 150-year-old bridge, two ticket-collectors Mansukh Valji and Madev Solanki, two sub-contractors Prakash Parmar and Devang Parmar, three security guards Alpesh Gohil, Dilip Gohil and Mukesh Chauhan. These men have been charged under the Indian Penal Code sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide) and 114 (abetment). If found guilty, they could spend the next decade of their lives in jail.
SCAPEGOATS TO SAVE THE BOSS?
It is surprising to see everyone, from the state government, to the Morbi municipality, to the police, completely silent on the Oreva Group top brass, including its owner Jaysukh Patel. It was Patel and his family members who reopened the bridge five days before it collapsed. Patel is on record saying the bridge was good to last eight to 12 years. Patel has not been seen in public since the bridge collapsed on October 30.
When this correspondent visited the house of Deepak Parekh, the entire family was in mourning. Parekh’s wife Sheetal tells their children – a boy and a girl – that their daddy has done nothing wrong and he’ll be home soon.
Sheetal tells us that her husband has been employed with Oreva for 22 years. “He did what was instructed to him; he obviously cannot make any decisions himself. He is in no way associated with anything related to that bridge,” she said.
That bridge. That bridge that will soon be forgotten by the mighty politicians. That bridge which may or may not come up again. That bridge because of which so many innocent people died. That bridge because of which nine people are in jail.
Sheetal says her entire family has cordial relations with her husband’s boss Jaysukh Patel. “We know him very well. We have been working for them (Patels) for decades but right now, we can neither approach a lawyer to defend my husband, nor we can speak against the company. My husband is innocent but we don’t know if he is framed due to political motives or Gujarat elections or any other reason. We just pray,” she says.
Dinesh Dave is Deepak Parekh’s colleague. Co-incidentally, his wife’s name is also Sheetal. Unlike Sheetal Parekh, Sheetal Dave couldn’t bear the news of her husband’s arrest with fortitude and fell ill. We managed to speak to her, though, and she says that her husband Dinesh’s arrest was most shocking because he wasn’t even employed in the department that dealt with bridges.
“My husband works in the recruitment (HR) section. He interviews and trains those working in Oreva company. We now feel helpless,” she says.
OSTRACISED BY LAWYERS
Unlike the Parekhs, the Daves tried to hire a lawyer to get Dinesh out of custody. But the family was bluntly told that no lawyer in Morbi will take up its case. Soon after the bridge collapse, the Morbi Bar Council unanimously decided to not defend the accused in a show of solidarity towards the victims and their families.
Politician Jayantilal Patel, who is contesting from Morbi on a Congress ticket, has spent his entire life in this ceramic town. He says “small people” such as bridge ticket-checkers and managers were framed to “shelter the big fish”. “The municipal corporation, the government, and the company are to be blamed,” he says.
Mansukh Topiya, aged 59, is among the nine arrested in the case. He worked as a ticket-checker at the bridge. His family resides at Jetpur Road in Rajkot and survived on less than Rs 10,000 a month that Topiya earned. His, and others’ arrests, were summed up by a paan shop owner opposite the collapsed bridge. “Morbi is a city where people forget the tragedies and move on. I feel sorry for Mansukh uncle. A simple man, arrested for no reason.”
Indeed, the Morbi dam tragedy or the 1979 Machchu Dam Failure, that wiped out anywhere from 1,800 to 25,000 people, is a distant memory in this town.
The three security guards — Alpesh Gohil, Dilip Gohil, and Mukesh Chauhan – are aged between 33 and 25. All of them are OBCs (Other Backward Classes). Their families reside in Dahod and the three had migrated to Morbi to earn a living. They are illiterate and cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Their families don’t know why they have been arrested.
‘TRUST THE POLICE’
Kantilal Amrutiya is gthe BJP’s candidate from Morbi. He was the hero that fateful evening, jumping into the river to save lives when the bridge collapsed. His act of bravery is also his political pitch. He told Vibes of India, “The police have arrested the culprits and the matter is under investigation. We should trust the law.”
We also visited the Civil Hospital in Morbi where the dead and the injured were brought in. Many died at the hospital. The complex was whitewashed overnight when Prime Minister Modi was scheduled to visit. Today, the bedsheets from Jamnagar have been sent back and the doctors too are gone. The new water coolers are dismantled, and gleaming walls and new tiles have lost the shine. The only things left behind are grief and unanswered questions.
Pictures: Hanif Sindhi