Kolkata flyover crash: Supervisors ignored the warning sound

Two workers at the construction site heard a cracking sound from the giant nuts of the cantilever hours before the deadly crash and they immediately alerted the supervisors. Instead of inspecting the cantilever, the supervisors asked the workforce to carry on. The tragedy would have been averted had they acted on time. 

KOLKATA–When an under-construction flyover in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata collapsed around Thursday noon, it was described as “god’s act”.

Haste to complete the project in poll-bound West Bengal state might have led to the flyover collapse in Kolkata on March 31

Haste to complete the project in poll-bound West Bengal state might have led to the flyover collapse in Kolkata on March 31

The group head of the Hyderabad-based Agavarapu Venkata Reddy Construction Limited (IVRCL), the firm in charge of erecting the flyover, said neither technical issues nor sub-standard construction materials caused the crash that killed 27 people and injured dozens, some seriously.

“It was god’s will…We have been building bridges and flyovers for 27 years, and nothing like this has ever happened”, he said.

Of course, nothing like this. On Thursday when residents in the Burrabazar area of north Kolkata heard a loud sound, they thought it was caused by an earthquake. But minutes later, they saw the collapsed flyover. There was dust and debris all over, and many vehicles including trucks lay flattened with the wail of the injured and trapped renting the air.

But the flyover had given adequate warning of the impending doom. On Thursday morning, a 40-year-old worker at the construction site, Pranab Das, heard a cracking noise from the giant nuts of the cantilever. Another co-labourer, Biswajit Das, also heard the sound, but the supervisors there asked the workforce to carry on.

The engineers of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, who have been inspecting the site, said such cracking noise must have come from the girders as they were “moving under stress”.

The question is, couldn’t the supervisors have averted the tragedy had they paid heed to what their men were saying? Or were the supervisors not adequately qualified to understand a warning sound when it came?

The construction of the flyover — to link the congested Central Kolkata with the northern fringes of Howrah and Nimtala — began in 2009, when a Marxist government (which had by then ruled the state for almost three decades) was in power.  The work was to have been completed in 2010, but the IVRCL missed nine deadlines, and the latest finishing date was August 2016.

A cash-rich firm that even built the prestigious sports village in Hyderabad, the IVRCL ran into a financial mess with the flyover, which would have been the longest in the city at two kilometers. In 2014, the company was so bankrupt that it had no money to buy construction material.

It was then that the urban development ministry at New Delhi — that had also partially funded the flyover project — began to have serious reservations about the IVRCL.  Months later, the company was blacklisted by the Indian Railway and several states, but the West Bengal administration — then headed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress Party — stood by the IVRCL.

However, at the end of 2015, Banerjee began to exert pressure on the firm to complete the project by February 2016. The IVRCL failed to meet this deadline and asked for time till August 2016.

One engineer told me in confidence that the “pressure for haste may have contributed to the crash”.

Ashok Jain, a professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee (in central India), who is familiar with Kolkata, said the congestion and traffic (only six hours of work were permitted each night ) around the site coupled with an urgency to complete the project might have contributed to the pressure on workmen and supervisors.

“It would appear somebody forgot something,” said Jain, who has over the past decade surveyed six structural failures, among them bridges and a transmission tower.

Haste has in the past reportedly brought down one other flyover in the Ultadanga area of north Kolkata in 2013.  A huge portion of the flyover collapsed, but there was no casualty, because it happened at 4.30 am when the place was deserted.

“The flyover was built in a hurry so that it could be inaugurated by then Marxist chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee before the 2011 Assembly elections,” said Urban Development minister Firhad Hakim.

Now that the flyover and the government’s dream of seeing the city’s longest bridge emerge lie shattered, and with West Bengal all set to elect a new assembly, Banerjee and her party are obviously nervous. A horrific happening like this is bound to drive the voter away from the Trinamool Congress. So the party has started to point fingers at the previous Marxist administration. It feels the contract should never have been given to the IVRCL.

Beyond the accident, there is one question that needs to be examined and not passed over. That a flyover of this proportion could have been planned at such a clogged spot seems incredulous. There were many places on the route of the flyover where one could touch a girder from one’s bedroom. At a couple of other points, the arms of the flyover (pier caps and post tension brackets) run over the balconies of residential complexes.

Several families have now been asked to leaves their houses because there is fear that the other parts of the flyover could also collapse.

Beyond this, there are tens of bridges and flyover in India that are in the danger of collapsing. Some of them are in major cities like Chennai and Mumbai.

But India being India, there is a tendency to leave the well-being of these structures to god. He may not will them to fall or that is what the governments and builders wish.

 Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and Seoul Times.

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