By Tanushree Bhasin for Youth Ki Awaaz:
There are few things as political as bridges and flyovers in India.
Operating as metaphors for the all-encompassing electoral chant of ‘development’, these looming structures form the very crux of politics in modern India. So when on March 31st, the Vivekananda flyover in the Jorasanko assembly constituency in Kolkata collapsed, days before West Bengal went to polls, the political ripples that were felt across the city were inevitable.
The first phase of polling in West Bengal starts on April 4th. The voting will take place in six phases with the last phase ending on May 5th. Counting of votes will take place on May 19th. Jorasanko goes to polls in the fourth phase, on April 25.
Now as the debris is cleared away, revelations about the fallen flyover are surfacing. As the dust settles, the picture is finally starting to look clearer. The flyover in Kolkata’s densely congested Burrabazaar area collapsed on top of traffic and pedestrians killing at least 26 people and injuring about a 100. Commissioned in 2007 by the then ruling party Communist Party of India-Marxist, it had missed eight of its deadlines because IVRCL, the company entrusted to construct it, went bankrupt. Investigating agencies now state that IVRCL was also blacklisted and on the CBI’s radar for malpractices in construction.
“In a city like Kolkata, you have to build flyovers keeping in mind that there is very little space and that construction work needs to happen fast and safely. It’s too early to say what went wrong with the Vivekananda Flyover but it is always one of these four things: design flaws, shoddy construction material, lax construction process and inadequate supervision. This collapse is a part of a much larger problem of infrastructure work in the city,” said Dr. Partha Pratim Biswas, Professor of Construction Engineering at Jadavpur University.
Huge infrastructure projects in India are intrinsically linked with ideas of modernity, growth and progress and quite naturally, politicians when they do build roads, flyovers, bridges and dams, make sure that these are remembered as their own personal political victories. Mamata Banerjee’s entire campaign in West Bengal is based on the promise of development – the construction of water projects, roads, bridges, and flyovers. When she talks of parivartan (change), she attempts to remind people of the much-needed infrastructure boost that her government has given the state.
How then can our leaders not politicise their disavowal and distancing from failed projects too? For the Opposition, the Left, the Congress and the BJP, this has become an opportunity to point out the cost of Mamata Banerjee’s brand of development. All three parties have made almost identical allegations – nepotism in sub-contracting the flyover, party-owned syndicate running the supply chain of construction material and bureaucratic delays made by lack of co-ordination between government departments.
Presently, all political conversation regarding the flyover has centred almost solely on the CPI-M and Trinamool Congress attempting to pin the blame on each other. The BJP, which finds itself briefly out of controversy, has been blaming everyone.
Mamata Banerjee, hours after the collapse, while micro-managing the rescue operation, announced that the flyover was “their” responsibility (the Left Front’s) and not “ours”. Others in the party, like TMC’s Kolkata North Member of Parliament Sudip Bandyopadhyay, under whose jurisdiction the Assembly falls said that “there were flaws in the design from inception and locals had even complained,” which he conveyed to the state government. But no one from TMC has spoken about the government’s own responsibility in ensuring that safety protocols were followed.
The Left has in turn accused Mamata Banerjee of deflecting responsibility. “This is her standard strategy. She will pin all the blame for everything on previous governments and turn up for photo-ops,” CPI-M M.P. and Politburo member Mohammad Salim told media.
Can one blame the residents of the city then for having no faith in the system? “Let these politicians first promise that they will never make a big deal about these flyovers for electoral benefits, there will be no pressure to finish them before elections, they will not go with their whole durbar and inaugurate them with their names written on marble because end of the day, it’s all public money and you are just doing your job,” said Ronny Sen, a Kolkata-based photographer, one of the first media persons to rush to the site.
A few days after the flyover collapsed, the twisted metal body of the flyover is a constant reminder of what happened. Those who walk under the shade of the remaining structure move quicker than others. Around us, the crumbling walls of ancient north Kolkata are dotted with colourful murals: the election campaign broken down to its most basic – a party logo, and a request to press a certain button on polling day.
At Jorasanko, the anger at sitting TMC MLA Smita Bakshi is evident. When she arrived at the site, with city mayor Sovan Chatterjee, they were greeted with cries of ‘sab chor hai (they’re all thieves)‘. “There is no chance that anybody will vote for Smita Bakshi again. Her entire family has been involved in the syndicate here – supplying construction material for buildings and flyovers. This is not the first time that a structure has collapsed. But this is the first time that so many lives have been lost,” alleged Vandana Aggarwal, a school teacher and an eye-witness of the collapse. (Her allegation against the MLA could not be independently verified).
Others blamed the politicians in general. “The problem isn’t that the area is congested. It has been for decades and since we don’t know any other way of life, it doesn’t matter anymore. The problem arises when the politicians say that they’ll decongest the area and their empty promises are exposed to be just that. For decades, this plan of decongesting north Kolkata has been going on. But where has it finally ended for us, with 25 dead and 90 injured? Does it matter which government is responsible when all anyone wants from us are our votes?” said Smita Poddar, a resident of Burrabazaar.
The saffron party, though no longer in the position of strength it found itself in after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, continues to be a strong contender in the Jorasanko Assembly. The party polled the highest number of votes in the area in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and also captured seven seats in the Kolkata Municipal polls, including Ward 23 of the Jorasanko constituency. The site of the disaster lies at the intersection of Ward 23, 24 and 25. In addition, the area boasts of a very strong RSS network, something that was very visible at the site where several men in khaki shorts turned up to help with (or obstruct) the relief work – depending on how you see it.
Others are less sure. “Ultimately, tell me this, who do we vote for? A flyover has collapsed and many have died. It’s tragic. I could have died myself. I was 10 minutes away, and a traffic jam saved my life. But for the past three decades, no work happened anywhere in Bengal. Forget about flyovers, we didn’t have basic roads, food to eat or water to drink. We aren’t voting for Mamata because we feel she’s honest or the best. She just the best we have and that is a tragedy in itself,” said Ramapada Sengupta, who runs a small factory of hajmi (digestive tablets) in the back alleys of Burrabazaar.
The impact of this tragedy might be substantial within the constituency itself, and possibly in Kolkata but it is unlikely that Trinamool Congress’s chances outside Kolkata will be hampered a great deal by the collapse of the flyover. A lot will depend on the extent to which different parties are able to bank on the questions raised by the collapse of the flyover and see if they resonate in rural Bengal. What happens in Kolkata, in the past has been limited to the city.
In 2011, Mamata Banerjee’s victory was credited by many to her ability as a successful entrepreneur of the state’s three decades worth of discontent. The challenge for the Opposition is the fact that for many the discontent against Banerjee, though sharp, still pales in comparison to the dark memories of the Left Front government.
While we have inklings as to who might stand to gain even from a tragedy as colossal as this one, we haven’t actually asked perhaps the most important question- will any of the culprits actually stand to lose anything? Or will they escape scot-free, their crimes forgotten and buried in the rubble that will soon be cleared away and life will go on as if nothing ever happened?
Photographs by Tanushree Bhasin.