Double engine failure: There must be full accountability for the Morbi bridge tragedy in Gujarat

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For the last few months, in the run-up to the next assembly election, the BJP and its government in Gujarat have been loudly projecting the benefits of the “double engine sarkar”. Now the deaths of over 130 innocent citizens — men, women and children — at Morbi put a grave question mark on those claims. Clearly and sadly, the tragedy is man-made. It reflects an abject failure of governance.

It is clear that the local administration headed by the district magistrate, superintendent of police, senior engineers of the PWD and municipality facilitated the tragedy. Yet the state has not registered an FIR against those officials, much less arrested them for their acts of commission and omission. The state has taken action against private businessmen in the past when accidents have taken place in factories owned by them resulting in the deaths of labourers. But in the present context, merely proceeding against the private contractor who repaired the bridge is not enough. Why should the state treat differently its own officers who are public servants, when their criminal negligence has resulted in so many deaths?

Under our Constitution, the life of every citizen must be protected by the state. The state and its ministers and officers had a duty and obligation to prevent the Morbi tragedy. They have failed to do so and therefore they must be proceeded against. Governance is an important element in the constitutional framework and the political and bureaucratic class cannot be content with self-congratulatory advertisements and tall claims. They must take responsibility for their failures. Without accountability, governance becomes a mere paper exercise.

By law, all bridges and public ways are the property of the state and the state must keep them in perfect condition so as not to cause any harm to citizens. The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur is now firmly entrenched in our jurisprudence and is an important vehicle for importing strict liability into negligence cases. The maxim is described as follows: “… but, where the thing is shown to be under the management of the defendant, or his servant, and the accident is such as, in the ordinary course of things, does not happen if those who have the management of the machinery used proper care, it affords reasonable evidence, in the absence of explanation by the defendant, that the accident arose from want of care.” Of course, this principle is to be applied in the law of tort for determining liability and consequential damages but it can be applied to a situation like the Morbi tragedy to fasten criminal liability as well.

The established facts leading to the tragedy justify an inference of rash and negligent acts on the part of those responsible. Gone are the days when William Blackstone could say that the king can do no wrong and Justice Holmes supported the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In modern democracy, such principles do not hold. The rule of law lays down principles of strict liability.

The fact that the bridge is very old and was recently renovated and reopened required the civil and police administration to be extra vigilant. Yet, almost 400 people were on it — far beyond its capacity — when the accident took place. The disaster was waiting to happen. So why was the district magistrate not mindful enough of the need to prevent accidents? Why would the superintendent of police not provide sufficient manpower to prevent such a large crowd from entering the bridge? Why did the engineer of the PWD or municipality not take any action to prevent its reopening?

With their talk of “double engine sarkar”, the state government and the ruling party clearly acknowledge that there is more than one point of supervision and control in the administration. Over the last few years, this has resulted in the erosion of good administration in Gujarat because appointments of civil and police officials are opaque and have political overtones. The dismissal of the cabinet and change of chief ministers since 2014 shows that the state is being run by remote control from Delhi. When the prime minister and the home minister, who belong to the state, visit it for official and informal reasons, the entire state machinery comes to a standstill as it attends to them.

If the state can spare large numbers of policemen to provide security to visiting leaders, why could it not spare a few policemen to avert the tragedy at Morbi?

On May 13 2013, the BJP demanded the resignation of the then PM Manmohan Singh on allegations of graft and corruption. When the Kolkata flyover collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 21 innocent citizens in 2016, PM Modi called it “A message from God” and called upon the people of West Bengal to save the state from its ruling party. With elections around the corner in Gujarat, should this tragedy also be considered “a message from God”?

There was a time when the late Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned because of a train accident. The late Madhavrao Scindia resigned following a plane crash. The BJP cannot have double standards. Merely giving compensation to victims and to their families is not enough. It only reflects an abdication of responsibility of those in power.

In any case, no compensation can be enough. A mere statement by a minister that the “government takes full responsibility” is far too little. The constitution of a committee or a commission of inquiry is only putting the matter in cold storage. During the tenure of the BJP, governments have seldom acted against officials, including those who failed to prevent the deaths of kar sevaks or subsequently the deaths of citizens in 2002. On the contrary, many of those civil and police officials were rewarded with promotions and post-retirement benefits. The party which claims to be different must act differently. Gujarat needs investment and development as it steadily falls behind other states. But more than anything else, it needs good governance.

Dushyant Dave is a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India and former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of India

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