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Questions swirl over lapses that led to India’s tragic bridge collapse

NEW DELHI – Poor crowd management, the selection of a clock-making company for bridge renovation works, and negligence by the local authorities are all under scrutiny as potential causes of the weekend Morbi bridge tragedy.

At least 135 people were killed after an overloaded pedestrian bridge in the western state of Gujarat snapped on Sunday, plunging people into the Machchhu river below. At least 47 children, several women and elderly are among the dead, officials said.

Hopes of finding any more survivors is dimming as rescue operations continue.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the site on Tuesday and met survivors as well as family members of victims, even as questions swirled over lapses on the part of the Morbi Municipal Corporation and culpability of the state government, both of which are led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The 230m-long and 1.25m-wide Julto Pul bridge, which was inaugurated in 1879 during British rule in India, had been undergoing renovation for the last seven months.

It was reopened on Oct 26 (Gujarati New Year Day) by Mr Jaysukhbhai Patel, managing director of the Oreva Group that was in charge of the renovations and maintenance of the structure.

Municipal official Sandeepsinh Zala said Oreva had not informed the local authorities about reopening the bridge, and it had not obtained the necessary quality check for the bridge’s renovation beforehand.

However, it is not clear why the local authorities failed to prevent the reopening of the bridge, whose ribbon-cutting ceremony was also covered by local media.

There were reportedly more than 400 people on the bridge when it snapped, although it had a far lower carrying capacity. They had purchased tickets to go on the popular local attraction.

Overcrowding could have been one key reason for the bridge’s collapse, said Dr Sewa Ram, an expert on transport infrastructure planning at New Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture. The steel suspension cables may have been stretched past their ultimate tensile strength, he said.

“A bridge when it is this old is likely to have structural or carrying capacity limitations,” he told The Straits Times, adding that the number of people allowed on the structure should have been “very, very strictly” monitored even after renovation.

“My point is this: Was proper inspection actually done before the bridge’s maintenance to establish what exactly needs to be maintained or renovated, and was the work done properly?”

Indian media and opposition party members have questioned how a company that specialises in making clocks was chosen for the renovation work, and if there was any wrongdoing in awarding the contract.

“Morbi bridge collapse is the result of massive corruption, I pray for the victims,” tweeted Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who led calls for the resignation of Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel.

Regional party Trinamool Congress said on Twitter: “Deaths occurred because the basic safety protocols were flouted by the administration.”

Dr Yagnesh Dave, Gujarat BJP state head of media, countered: “This is not the time for politics. This is the time to help those injured and provide support to families who have lost loved ones. The priority right now is to save lives.

“The bridge capacity was 100 people, if you let more people go on the bridge, the first accused will be the security guard and ticket seller. The owner may not know. Those who are found guilty will be arrested,” he told ST.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also said he would not like to politicise the tragedy, which comes at a time of heightened political activity as Gujarat heads for elections by December. Mr Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party will be contesting against the BJP, which has been in power in the state for nearly three decades, including more than 12 years when Mr Modi served as Gujarat’s chief minister.

A spokesman for Oreva, which Indian media said had outsourced renovations to another firm, told The Indian Express newspaper: “While we are waiting for more information, prima facie, the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one way to the other.”

The state government has formed a special investigation team to look into the incident. Mr Modi asked for “a detailed and extensive inquiry” into the bridge tragedy at a meeting with state leaders and officials on Tuesday.

Nine workers associated with Oreva – two managers, two subcontractors, two ticket collectors and three security guards – have been arrested for homicide.

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