When a man-made accident occurs, after the first few days of chaos, rescue operations, customary meetings and discussions, it all gets forgotten about the lives affected and the people responsible. The focus then shifts to either a political blame game or it gets thrown under the carpet. About 14 months ago, parts of an under-construction bridge collapsed in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar during a thunderstorm due to a loose cable. The same four-lane bridge caved in again on Sunday.
Although no casualties have been reported, some media reports suggest that several workers have gone missing. The Sultanganj-Aguwani Ghat bridge, the foundation stone laid down by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar in 2014, was built at a cost of more than Rs 1,700 crore and was originally slated to be inaugurated in 2020. Just like the last year, this time too, CM Kumar ordered a customary probe into the collapse, while tackling a wave of criticism over poor construction and safety standards.
The incident brought to light the countless bridges that have come crashing down in the northern state in recent history. Bihar is no stranger to the falling of bridges. There have already been at least four bridge collapse incidents in the state this year.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, speaking on the latest collapse, voiced strong displeasure and condemned the poor quality of the work and the inordinate delay in completion. The Bihar government also slapped a show-cause notice on the construction company that took up the project. But the question still remains, why do bridges keep collapsing in Bihar?
Sub-Par Construction Standards
The breaking of the bridge, still under construction, into two halves and falling into the river Ganga below it was captured on camera raising questions about its construction. The bridge had reportedly also suffered damage due to a storm in April, further exacerbating the situation.
When a few pillars of the same four-lane bridge collapsed last year, Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari blamed it on the low quality of materials used for construction.
In December 2022, a bridge across the Burhi Gandak River in Begusarai collapsed due to cracks and falling pillars. Another bridge collapse occurred in Nalanda district in November last year, resulting in the death of a labourer and injuries to another. Other under-construction bridges in Kishanganj and Saharsa districts collapsed even before their inauguration.
The caving-in of the Bhagalpur bridge has simply added to a series of bridge failures in Bihar, highlighting a disturbing trend that has time and again raised concerns about the safety and quality of infrastructure in the state. As a result, criticism swiftly emerged in response to the incident. However, it also prompted cover-up attempts by the state.
The bridge collapse prompted a war of words between the ruling Janata Dal-United (JD[U])-Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) alliance and the BJP in opposition, with the latter demanding the resignation of the chief minister.
Leader of Opposition in Bihar, Vijay Kumar Sinha expressed his dismay over the incident and blamed the Nitish Kumar-led government alleging corruption. Sinha said, "There's a tradition of seeking commissions. It is a consequence of his mentality of political instability that there's administrative anarchy and corruption. The system is collapsing but they are talking about opposition unity."
At the same time, after the latest incident, deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav tried to justify the collapse saying the state government was anyway planning to demolish the under-construction bridge because of structural flaws.
"It may be recalled that a portion of this bridge had collapsed on April 30 last year. We had, thereafter, approached IIT-Roorkee, which is esteemed for its expertise in construction matters, to conduct a study," he said, adding that the final collapse was simply an indication that fears about the structural stability of the bridge were correct.
Incompetent Personnel Involved
Haryana-based SP Singla Constructions, the company which was awarded the contract for the bridge has now come under the scanner after its construction failed for the second time in 14 months. The company has been asked to explain why it should not be blacklisted by the Bihar government or further action taken against it.
"The department has also suspended the executive engineer concerned for his failure to keep an eye on the quality of the work," Pratyay Amrit, the Additional Chief Secretary for the road construction department, told PTI.
SP Singla Constructions is a family-run company headed by Sat Paul Singla. According to an India Today report, the net worth of the company was nearly Rs 869 crore in 2022. They specialise in deep foundations, long-span bridge construction, urban flyover construction, elevated road construction, elevated metro viaducts construction, station building construction, and spillways construction and have many government clients including the National Highways Authority of India [NHAI], Border Roads Organization [BRO], Delhi Metro Rail Corporation [DMRC], among other central and state clients, as per the report.
However, this is not the first time the company has been in controversy. According to the India Today report, SP Singla Constructions came under the scanner for the first time in May 2020, when three children died after a concrete slab fell on them during the construction of Lohiya Chakra Path, an ambitious project of CM Nitish Kumar in Patna.
While an inquiry was ordered into the incident, there was no update on what happened or if any action was taken against the company. Meanwhile, the company has been asked to reply within 15 days about the latest incident.
If Morbi Bridge tragedy -- that left nearly 140 people dead -- has taught us anything, it is that the contracts for construction projects where lives could be at risk should never be given to incompetent authorities because they will only cause further damage. Bidding processes for contracts need to be streamlined and experts should be called in for regular checkups.