Will the tragedy that claimed 135 lives and the resultant controversy over accountability shock voters into a snap decision? Dharmendra Jore reads the mood in Morbi
The broken Morbi bridge on Thursday. Pic/Dharmendra Jore
On the other bank of river Machhu, as we entered a lane flanked by cow sheds, we saw a group of curious people wielding mobile phones. They dispersed somberly as I began treading the kaccha path. Behind them stood a metal structure held by two steel frame towers. Down the lane, I reached a retaining wall from where I could see the remnants of a disaster that killed 135 on October 30. Morbi will vote on December 1.
Opposite shanties was a pile of aluminium and rubber scrap, apparently the damaged part of the century-old suspension bridge that plunged many—young, old and children—to death that fateful evening, minutes after the sunset. The sun had begun to hide behind the horizon when we saw a couple of people taking pictures on their handphones. It’s almost three weeks since the tragedy struck many families during a Diwali function. The site has become a must-visit place for mediapersons and a tourism destination for travellers.
A pall of gloom descended as mid-day struck a conversation with a labourer from a neighbouring temple construction site. Hiralal Koted has been staying with 20 others on the river bank in makeshift huts. “I had gone to my village in Rajasthan for Diwali when the incident happened. It was shocking when I watched it on television. I returned 10 days ago. Others will come back soon,” he said, inquiring about the court hearing of bail pleas of the people arrested in the incident. We told him all the accused were denied bail by the Morbi district court.
BJP workers at the party office. Mahendrabhai Ghodasra (left) and Kamleshbhai Dalsania defended the charge against the party
“Let’s hope the big shots are also arrested. People here say that only small people have been held. Will the biggies ever get punished?” he wondered. A woman, who lives in the next shanty, came out with her two children. Thwarting our attempts to talk to her, she curtly said that she was away with her family in Rajasthan for Diwali. We asked for her name. She said something like Maharani and went inside.
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A senior citizen on the kaccha road hesitated before telling us anything. “What will you do by publishing the news ?” he poked at us. “Nothing will happen to the accused, the administration and the government. But I tell you that people are angry and disappointed. They will show the ruling party its place in the election,” he said, refusing to tell his name. He ranted further, venting like a seasoned political worker. He said he runs a small shop by the roadside, selling confectionery.
Another person we met on our way out spoke on the condition of anonymity, “Every third day, media people like you come here and ask us questions. I tell them frankly it’s a mere three weeks and the people have already forgotten about it.” “But why do you say so?” we asked.
“Because it is election time. Nobody has time to think for the victims. The people who lost their loved ones may still be grieving. People like us who stay in the vicinity of the site are reminded of the tragedy. But what can we do? The government and the politicians have been prompt in doing lip service and providing the assistance because the incident happened just ahead of the polls…” he said, adding not all kin of the victims of such mishaps were given financial relief within days. He claimed some 15 people had died in a wall collapse in a neighbouring village three months ago, but they haven’t got a penny that was promised by the mantris.
Maganbhai Kandiya (in sweater) and his folks at village Surendranagar near Morbi. He holds the government responsible and predicts backlash for the BJP in Morbi Assembly constituency. Pics/Dharmendra Jore
Reactions poured in as we travelled towards the city centre. But one thing was common: they refused to be identified, without giving us a reason for anonymity. “You find out the reason,” said a shopkeeper asking us to stop using the camera. So, will the bridge collapse have any political repercussions when the Morbi constituency and some others go to polls on December 1?
Cong discovers its handle
Maganbhai Kandia, who attended a corner meeting of the Congress candidate Jayantilal Patel, at village Surendranagar, some 8 km from Morbi, said the BJP has already felt the tremors. “The BJP replaced its sitting MLA Brijesh Merja with the old hand and former legislator Kantilal Amrutiya. The people resented the sitting MLA who quit Congress to join the BJP,” he said. Kandia had been with the BJP and represented the party in the Morbi Zilla Panchayat before joining the Congress. He remained in the Congress even after the likes of Hardik Patel and Merja shifted loyalty. He supports Jayantilal who has lost four elections from Morbi since 1995. “The anger will surely reflect in the EVM,” he said, ruing that the BJP of today is far different from the one Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L K Advani and M M Joshi were part of once.
The Congress has made the tragedy a poll plank against Kantilal who dived into the river to save lives after the bridge collapsed. The jump proved to be a bonus point for Kantilal, who won praises and a BJP ticket. The Congress has been spreading the anti-government word door to door and in corner meetings, keeping the issue alive in the Patidar-dominated constituency. The BJP workers believe in the Modi mantra of development and his poll tagline ‘we have made Gujarat’.
Why milk a tragedy: BJP
BJP knows the Opposition strategy. We couldn’t get in touch with the party candidate who was in a remote village, campaigning, on Thursday. But a group of senior party workers protested the Congress plank on grounds that deaths should not be politicised. Kamleshbhai Dalsania blamed the crash on overcrowding on the bridge.
The bridge wasn’t repaired properly by the subcontractors hired by Oreva Group, the principal contractor. Two managers of the group are in jail and were denied bail on Wednesday. The forensic submission to the court has confirmed that the renovation was done without dismantling the old bridge of which 49 sub-cables were rusted or broken.
“The Opposition has politicised the tragedy for electoral gains. We accept if the local administration is wrong in handling things that led to the bridge collapse,” said Mahendrabhai Ghodasra, a senior BJP worker. “The Opposition should think of manavata [humanity] and trust the judiciary,” he said, dismissing the charge that the influential culprits were being protected by their well-wishers in the government. “The government and the administration reached out to rescue and extended all help without any delay,” he said, insisting that PM Narendra Modi has ensured everything possible and would do further in the future.
The Gujarat High Court said on Thursday that the Rs 4 lakh compensation for the kin of the dead was inadequate and ordered the government to increase it to at least Rs 10 lakh. A government employee in Morbi said he has lost seven relatives. “The dead were my distant relatives, but we are a close community and we treated them as close. The kin of the dead, their family friends and associates are upset. The anger may come out when they go to vote,” he said.
Apart from the tragedy recall, Morbi seems to be one of the most enterprising towns in Gujarat that has emerged victorious from natural disasters, like the Machhu dam breach in August 1979 that killed thousands. The town, once famous for making watches, shifted its economy to manufacturing roof tiles and later took up ceramic tiles production, providing supplies across the country and outside it. It is home to several lakh skilled and unskilled workers from north and south India. The rural areas show robust farming, allied business and other enterprises.
Day Morbi constituency will go to polls