The Murky Affairs of Morbi
Being stoic, and being callous, are two entirely different things
The news of the bridge collapse at Morbi in Gujarat killing nearly 150 people left the nation in shock. However, from the initial reaction of a group of people, it seemed that they were used to occasional accidents of this nature in which people die like pests and bugs. They perhaps felt it was almost a way of life for people to die like this. Their attitude was, "One who is born must also die;" so, what's the big deal?
Some would say we are stoic like the Japanese, and do not believe in public display of our innermost feelings. Most of us are simply indifferent. Being stoic and being callous are two entirely different things. The former is an extraordinary and positive streak in one's character, whereas the latter indicates a lack of feelings.
Going by our reaction to events such as the bridge crash, as revealed to reporters and in the plethora of TV debates, we belittled the gravity of the incident, made light of the loss of innocent lives, and even tried to justify the lapses and apathy of those responsible for preventing such disasters. We also invoked God or the scriptures in order to cover up our own misdeeds and greed that lead to such accidents.
Worse, we blatantly attempt to shift the responsibility for such ghastly accidents from the real culprits to the victims themselves. Loss of hundreds of lives does not seem to move us anymore.
Morbi was no exception to the general rule. Here was a tragedy that ought to have invited shock, disapproval, and demand for punishment of those responsible for it from all quarters across the entire political spectrum. Deaths of innocent people in a man-made disaster is not a matter from which to extract political mileage. Unfortunately, few of our politicians believe in, or practise such civilised behaviour.
One feels sad to observe that whether it was the hapless migrant labourers who were crushed under running trains, or hundreds of people drowning in the river as the bridge at Morbi collapsed, a studied and deafening silence is the first reaction of the top leadership. All its later actions appear as nothing but afterthought.
What other conclusion can be drawn when we see that despite the gravity of the situation caused by the tragedy, petty election-related politics continued, with little more than lip service sympathy for the victims?
When the leadership did find time to visit the accident site and to be by the side of the survivors of the tragedy, the district and hospital administration got busy in getting the hospital spruced up to show the visiting dignitary what great amenities and medical facilities were available there. When questioned by the press, the authorities' justification for such actions ranged from the bizarre to the grotesque.
The Gujarati print media has reported that, in response to an RTI application, the authorities have conveyed that a total amount of Rs.27 crores was spent for painting of the hospital, new beds, water coolers, etc., repairing the approach road to the hospital, "other arrangements and welcoming", police arrangement. Add to that the PM's security, event management, photography and videography. The news was all over social media, but the so-called national media has no space for it.
As against this amount spent for creating a visual effect on the VVIP, the compensation immediately announced for the 135 victims at Rs.4 lakhs per head, amounted to a paltry Rs. 5.4 crores! That was later raised under the High Court's directive to a more respectable figure.
It does not surprise one that our leaders, even those who wish to remove slavery from the county, do not find such open display of obsequiousness embarrassing. Words such as humility and humbleness seem to have no place in their dictionary. They are after renaming older street names in order to remove slavery, while entertaining or perhaps enjoying, the display of slavish mentality by the officialdom all around them.
Even after the accident, the visit of the Prime Minister and other leaders to the site, and outrage expressed from various quarters, no special enquiry beyond the routine one by the local police which, reportedly, did precious little when thousands were congregating to step on the unfinished bridge making an accident imminent.
The sham of an investigation undertaken by the local police led to the arrest of some low-level employees of the contractor who clearly had no authority to decide premature opening of the bridge. It defies logic that the local police were unaware of thousands of people gathering at a small place like Morbi.
Equally surprising is the "ignorance" of the local administrative and municipal officials of the "opening of the bridge" by none other than the Managing Director of the company that undertook its renovation.
One word about the role of the media in reporting and analysing the tragedy. Barring a handful of conspicuous exceptions, the media, especially the electronic media, has not come out entirely clean. Some television channels even had the insensitivity to repeatedly focus on some crazy fun-seekers kicking and pushing the bridge, as if to lend credibility to the bizarre claim of some worthies that such behaviour of a section of the people had led to the collapse of the bridge.
At television discussions of the incident, while many speakers expressed strong feelings against the alleged nexus of corrupt businessmen and a section of the bureaucracy which, they felt, was the underlying cause for the tragic accident, there were many others who indulged in whataboutery to defend the indefensible.
They raked up many past cases of similar nature in an attempt to justify Morbi as just "one more" such incident. It is surprising that eminent and matured personalities take recourse to such infantile logic but lack the courage to admit fault, if any, and assure that it will not recur.
Fortunately, while the Administration appeared to have been out of its wits and sluggish to initiate a deep probe into the tragedy, the High Court stepped in. The honourable court has already asked important and pertinent questions in order to fix the responsibility for the shocking accident.
Directives have also been issued to the state government to significantly increase the quantum of compensation for the victims. The public at large hopes that justice will prevail and the guilty will not escape the long arm of the law.
SANDIP MITRA is a former IFS officer. Views expressed are the author's own.
Cover Photograph Courtesy AFP.