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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi

Gujarat bridge collapse: anger grows in India over cover-up claims

Rescuers on boats continue their search of the river on Tuesday where a pedestrian bridge collapsed in Morbi, Gujarat, killing 135 people.
Rescuers on boats continue their search of the river on Tuesday after a pedestrian bridge collapsed in Morbi, Gujarat, killing 135 people. Photograph: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Anger is growing in India over allegations that corruption was responsible for the collapse of a bridge in Morbi in Gujarat leaving 135 people dead, amid claims that a cover-up is under way to shield those responsible.

The bridge snapped in two on Sunday evening when families were out enjoying the evening air over the river. Many of those standing in the middle of the bridge when it collapsed plunged into the river and drowned, while others at both ends of the bridge, closer to the banks, died from the impact of falling on to the stones and boulders below.

Indians have been dismayed to discover that the Gujarat government, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), gave the contract for repairing the 100-year-old suspension bridge to a local company called Oreva.

Oreva makes watches, clocks and lighting. There is no evidence of it having any experience of bridge repairs or infrastructure. Nor is any mentioned on its website.

The opposition politician Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Aam Aadmi party, alleged that “massive corruption” was responsible for the bridge collapsing only four days after it had been renovated.

“Why was a watchmaking company which had no experience of bridge construction allowed to do so?” said Kejriwal during a press conference.

When the prime minister, Narendra Modi, visited the site on Tuesday, a hoarding with Oreva’s name on it was covered by tarpaulin.

Politicians were scathing about the accident, especially as Modi is given to extolling Gujarat, his home state, as a “development model” for the rest of India.

Congress party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala also alleged corruption, asking pointedly whether Oreva had some connection with the BJP.

His other allegation was that the government rushed the reopening because Gujarat is going to the polls for the state assembly in December and the reopening of the bridge, a well-known tourist attraction, could have been something for the BJP to promote in its favour.

As the controversy escalated, more details have emerged of what was the worst accident in India for many years. Stories have emerged of a couple who lost both of their young sons, a tea seller who rescued three children from the muddy waters only to see them die in the ambulance, a toddler who survived but lost her parents, and entire families perishing.

Local people have been helping to arrange the cremations and burials of the dead. In Indian tradition, the final rites have to be performed as soon as possible after the person’s death.

Some of the dead are believed to be migrant labourers from other states. Families who had loved ones working in Morbi are arriving from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to see if they are among the dead.

Alongside the anger, there is growing concern at a possible cover-up, prompted by the identities of the nine people arrested. Indian media reported that two of those detained were managers with Oreva although their seniority was not known. The others were security guards and ticket sellers on the bridge.

“The question is, who in the municipal authority decided to open the bridge without a clearance certificate? The poor ticket seller didn’t decide to sell tickets on his own, it was his boss. And who decided to allow any number of people on to the bridge without knowing its load-bearing capacity?” asked the leader of Congress, Pawan Khera.

After visiting the site, Modi went to meet some of the 100 or so people with injuries who are at Morbi government hospital.

Narendra Modi (centre) meets a survivor of the bridge collapse at a hospital in Morbi.
Narendra Modi (centre) meets a survivor of the bridge collapse at a hospital in Morbi on Tuesday. Photograph: PIB/AFP/Getty Images

The hospital came in for sarcastic praise for the furious speed of its transformation in time for Modi’s visit. Overnight, walls got a fresh coat of paint, worn bedsheets were replaced by new ones, chipped tiles were repaired. A new water cooler was also trundled out into the corridor although, as an NDTV news channel reported caustically, it had no water in it.

A woman who has been visiting a patient unrelated to the tragedy told NDTV she had walked in to find a rather different-looking hospital on Tuesday. “It is usually filthy but suddenly it looks nicer and cleaner. The toilets are clean. There isn’t even clean drinking water to be had here. I always carry my own,” she said.

The Congress party tweeted: “Painting is on, shiny tiles are being laid. Made to ensure that there is nothing amiss in the Prime Minister’s pictures. They have no shame, so many people have died, and they are busy in event management.”

Search and rescue operations have continued but are likely to be called off as rescuers do not expect to find any more bodies.

Gujarat has declared that Wednesday will be a day of mourning.

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