Is it possible that we as a nation have got our development priorities utterly wrong?
While in the past few years we have heard constant chatter about smart cities and superfast transport systems, virtually no attention has been paid to the upkeep and maintenance of basic infrastructures. The result — as we have seen in the recent past: a series of disastrous breakdowns of bridges, flyovers, old and new alike, that have become a routine feature of everyday life in India.
The collapse of the British-era Mumbai-Goa highway in Maharashtra on Tuesday night is yet another testimony to our skewed notion of modernity and development that governments have come to embrace over the last two decades. While new and glitzy infrastructure projects have come to be perceived as markers of progress and prosperity – supposedly aimed at getting India a berth in the league of world’s modern nations – older infrastructure deteriorates without anyone noticing. This, even as they remain the main thoroughfare for common people, who cannot take recourse to latest luxury superhighway or the newest bullet train.
More than 30 people are now feared to be dead in Raigad’s Savitri river following Tuesday’s collapse of the colonial-era bridge. District officials have attributed the accident to heavy rainfall. But that can hardly count as a satisfactory explanation for the loss of lives. Several pertinent questions arise immediately –
- How many audits were done over the last decade to test the durability and safety of the bridge?
- Which were the authorities tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the upkeep of the bridge?
- Were any warnings issued to the public at large about the dangers of using it during heavy rainfall?
After all, in the times we live in, a bridge – almost by definition built over water – can hardly be expected to fall over in a flood. And if it is, then surely such a structure needs to be vigilantly monitored.
Tragically, these questions remain perennially hanging even as bridges and flyovers continue to crumble across India. Just five months ago, at least 21 people were killed and more than 60 injured as chunks of the 2.2 km-long Vivekananda Flyover, under construction, collapsed in a congested market area of North Kolkata. While such accidents in big cities grab media attention and headlines, disintegration of infrastructure in smaller towns and villages receive little attention either from media or authorities concerned.
At the heart of India’s lengthy history of bridge collapse is their continued neglect. In addition to absence of auditing and regular maintenance, there is also the issue of corruption and flawed design that mire the very processes of bridge construction. This makes the infrastructure vulnerable from the very outset.
In 2013, Rahul Bhatia, in this article in The Caravan, had given a graphic description of the state of bridges in India:
“... since 2008, at least six bridges have failed under the weight of heavy vehicles. All told, in the past 12 years there have been over 23 bridge failures in India, killing 310 people and injuring more than 450. Wood bridges, steel bridges, vehicular bridges, pedestrian bridges. Old bridges, and even new bridges. Some are faulty from the start.”
It is indeed facile to imagine that the push for new infrastructure can succeed without maintaining the old. Unless a system is put in place to ensure the safety of India’s old road and bridge communication networks, the new projects too will remain vulnerable.
Maintaining roads is considered to be a job that is simpler than maintaining bridges. Bridges have a specific period of durability and the process of wear and tear begins from the very moment the infrastructures start functioning. Vehicular traffic daily eats away at the structure and the material it is made of.
Specialists are (or ought to be) in charge of inspecting their safety. But the engineers tasked with the job often do not have such specialised training. Then there is also the addition complication of multiple private and public agencies that manage India’s large road and bridge networks. Identifying the specific authorities in charge of a particular bridge has often proven to be difficult in the past.
As of now, there seems to be no precise knowledge of the safety of existing bridges. And this seems to be a dangerous precedent as we rush headlong into new infrastructure projects that will apparently transform the face of the country.