Morbi The river Machchu reveals little, its placid waters hiding most remnants of tragedy. It is the banks that carry the scars. On the side that abuts Morbi city, stone steps lead to a small landing, moored to which is a blue rescue raft, one of the many that spent five days hunting for bodies, and finding them. On the opposite end, where a dirt path leads downwards to the edge of the water, are piles and piles of marigold garlands. Some are withered by time, laid over three weeks ago when the banks were full of rescue teams, politicians, and administrators. Others, laid by the families of those who died, are fresh, their bright orange a reminder of the pain that refuses to subside. The kin come to the banks quietly early every morning, flowers in their hands, staring out into the depths of the water before receding into their broken lives.
Above them is Morbi’s sorrow, the 145-year-old 233-metre suspension bridge that broke in the middle, plunging 135 men, women and children to their deaths on October 31, five days after it was opened after being “renovated”.
Shards of what was meant to be the floor of the bridge are still tangled in the cables that gave way, hanging precariously in mid-air. One entrance carries some evidence of the facelift that was passed off as repair. In shiny golden Gujarati letters are the words “Jhulto Pul” (hanging bridge). Operated and maintained by Oreva Group, the board proudly says. It’s a group who’s managing director, Jaysukhbhai Patel, is yet to be questioned or even named in police records. He has not surfaced since the day of the tragedy. Below the sign is a white grilled gate that now has a chain and a padlock, and to its right a ticket counter that has two locks across its doors.
There is living memory, too. Five hundred metres away, Mohammad Anas sits forlorn in his paan stall, telling a story he has told many times before in the last three weeks. For five days before October 31, he was pleased beyond measure as business was brisk. It was just after Navratri, and Morbi was in a celebratory mood, with people turning up in hundreds to a bridge that had opened just in time for the festivity. At 6.40pm, as the sun dipped and the sky turned orange, he heard an almighty crash, and then screams. The screams of those who were hanging on to the rusted wires of the bridge, trying in vain to hold on; the screams of those who thrashed around in the river; and the screams of those who watched from the banks. “All of us rushed to try and save people. But there was so much chaos, even we were afraid. I jumped in, must have saved six people. But there were so many that I couldn’t. I can still hear them,” Anas said.
It is 10.30am. Anas has an audience of four people, all on their way to work. Two are quiet, drinking tea in glass cups in silent empathy. One man, Rajesh Singh, is angry and voluble. “This is all the government’s fault. They allowed the bridge to open despite shoddy work. It’s all corruption,” he says, his voice rising. Next to him is his ceramic factory colleague, Sudesh Patel, trying to calm Singh down. “There is no point blaming anyone. Jab Bhagwan ne bula liya, to manushya kuch nahi kar sakta (When God summons someone, there is nothing man can do),” he says.
Somewhere in between the words of anger and the “act of God” lies the future of voting day in Morbi on December 1.
Life and business wait for no tragedy. Across the motorable Mayur bridge that leads to Morbi – population 194,947 according to the 2011 census; 194km from Ahmedabad and 60km from Rajkot – the city is going about its normal business. Morbi is the undisputed ceramic capital of India, with its 950 factories that contribute a large chunk of the country’s production. Its factories are abuzz, tile shops full of customers, children of its Gujarati and migrant population raucously coming and going to school. But scratch its wound, and Morbi is seething under the surface.
It is lunchtime at Lakhdhirpur, and workers from the factories and shops in the area have descended on a dhaba. Saurabh Patel, a 28-year-old factory worker, is talking loudly to a group of colleagues. “What is more evidence of corruption? For 145 years, the bridge stood the test of time. Then they closed it for renovation for six months, did a shoddy job, opened it before time, allowed thousands of people on it, and even after that, have only arrested the small fry. How can we not hold the government responsible?” Patel asks.
On the table before him is a vernacular Gujarati newspaper that has the story of the PIL on Morbi before the Supreme Court, asking the Gujarat high court to ensure an independent investigation into the role of Nagar Palika and the agency that was in charge of maintenance and renovation of the bridge. Over the past three weeks, Patel has read and watched increasingly incredulous accounts of undeniable laxity. Of an MoU that was reached between Oreva Group and the Morbi Municipality in 2018 with no sign of a tender; of lack of clarity on the number of people that should have been on the bridge; and of renovation carried out by people who did not have expertise or qualification in respect of renovation of bridges. “They have arrested nine people, but not one person from the municipality has been arrested. Nor has Jaysukhbhai Patel, who opened the bridge on October 26,” Patel says.
Not everyone at the table agrees though. “Of course there were lapses. But how long can we look at the past? Tragedies like this happen all over the world. Our grandfathers tell us of the dam breach that killed thousands in 1979. What is important is what party will take care of Morbi in the future. Ours is a business town, and we will be fools if we forego a party that takes care of our future like the BJP,” says Suraj Chainani.
It’s clear that the politics in and around Morbi at the moment revolves around the bridge collapse. On November 21, in Rajkot, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi raised the issue and asked why no action had been taken against the people responsible.
“They have arrested chowkidaars and put them behind bars but no action has been taken against the real culprits,” he said. Of the nine people arrested so far, two are managers from the Oreva Group, two are from the company that the renovation was sub-contracted to, while the rest are ticket collectors and security guards.
That the bridge collapse is central is also clear in the BJP campaign in the city. Across Gujarat, almost every BJP poster has Prime Minister Narendra Modi front and centre, with Amit Shah, JP Nadda, Bhupendra Patel and CR Paatil flanking him, and, if there is any space, the local MLA standing for election. The signs in Morbi, however, from every poster that smiles down on people, is the face of Kantilal Amrutiya, the former MLA of the region who is now the Morbi candidate, replacing sitting legislator and minister of state for labour and employment Brijesh Merja. On the evening of October 31, videos and photographs of Amrutiya in a bright orange rescue jacket, wading into the waters to rescue people, had gone viral.
A senior BJP leader in charge of Morbi said, “It is clear that we have to engage with the issue at hand. We cannot say development when a bridge has come crashing down. But the government has been quick to give compensation to every single family quickly, and Amrutiya has a good image because of his bravery. Even in 1979, there are images of him as an RSS worker helping people when the floods had ravaged the city which is part of our campaign. This, combined with the lack of anger on other issues, unlike in 2017, means we will come through, even if it is tricky.”
Larger regional politics
In terms of the broader politics around Morbi, the seat is part of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, which gave the Congress campaign a fillip in 2017, forcing the BJP to its lowest tally of 99 seats since 1998. In Saurashtra’s 56 seats, the Congress tally rose sharply, from 16 in 2012 to 30 in 2017. Morbi district has three seats – Morbi, Tankara and Wankaner – and all three were won by the Congress. In 2020, however, Brijesh Merja, who fought the 2017 elections on a Congress ticket, resigned and fought the bypoll on a BJP ticket, and won.
That’s perhaps because the 2017 elections were fought in a different time, and in the middle of a different campaign. The Patidar agitation for reservations had galvanised the influential community, and industrial Morbi was reeling under the after-effects of the double whammy of demonetisation and GST. In 2022, those opposition headwinds seem to be largely absent. “We are confident of turning around Saurashtra. The other factors that led to the drop in votes in 2017 do not exist this time. There is no Patidar agitation for instance, and Hardik Patel is now with us. Politics and the tragedy are two separate issues,” the BJP leader quoted above said.
Pravin Vyas, a senior journalist and commentator based in Morbi, however, said the loss of lives will not be easily forgotten. “So many died. There are so many families and extended families that have bathed in sadness. Even for the 1979 tragedy, we have a memorial and people still remember. This has only been one month,” Vyas said. The results on December 8 notwithstanding, on the banks of the Machchu, below the Jhulto Pul, there is a pile of marigold garlands that is evidence of lingering grief. Early every morning, Morbi remembers.