Morbi Tragedy: Sickness of stupefied silence shouldn't turn into epidemic

These accidents are man-made calamities exposing the nexus between corrupt builders, contractors , bureaucrats and politicians, belonging to different ruling dispensations.

Published: 13th November 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th November 2022 07:46 PM   |  A+A-

There are times when sorrow drowns all other feelings, including seething rage. The collapse of the bridge at Morbi in Gujarat was a tragic moment when rescue and relief took priority over even mourning. But silence and inability to console the bereaved families must give way to anger and outrage.

A few things need to be made clear at the outset. The 'accident', resulting in loss of over 135 innocent lives and leaving many more crippled and struggling for their lives, happened in election-bound Gujarat-- home state of the Prime Minister. This tempted a few commentators to snidely refer to the 'Gujarat Model' and blame the top national leadership for the mishap. Some made course correction after a knee-jerk reaction and were compelled to admit that bridges, flyovers have collapsed elsewhere too, from West Bengal to Maharastra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Goa. 

These accidents are man-made calamities exposing the nexus between corrupt builders, contractors, bureaucrats and politicians, belonging to different ruling dispensations. Criminal negligence is in all such cases inseparable from a conspiracy that reduces oversight to a cruel joke. But why blame the politicians in and out of power? How easily we shrug our shoulders and move on muttering under our breath, jaane bhi do yaro.

ALSO READ | Morbi bridge collapse: Only floor changed, not its cables

All of us are complicit as we continue, without missing a step, with what we consider is our duty, assigned task or are inhumanly driven by the obsession, that the show must go on. The standard operating procedure has become sickeningly familiar to all -- compensation for loss of life and limb, setting up of an inquiry, and immediate arrest of low-level functionaries who appear no different from scapegoats. Then the 'investigative' contortionist media takes over -- bending backward, kneeling and crawling at the same time.

Return to Morbi for a moment. We are told that the bridge broke and fell in the river because suicidal selfie-takers were stomping on it, creating dangerous resonance. The blame game continued as the top practitioners performed on television and social media. Municipal and district authorities came under the glare of searchlight, but never turned towards the person or the company entrusted with the task of repairing the ramshackle tourist attraction.

Operation whitewash, we hasten to add, is not a monopoly of Gujarat. Each time a footbridge collapses, a section of world-class highway sinks or a multi-storeyed 'skyscraper' implodes, or fire chars shoppers in a cinema hall, the damage control and shifting of narrative is handled by lapdog experts. Sickening is the word. But the sickness of stupefied silence can't be allowed to turn into an epidemic.

Morbi shouldn't be forgotten. Let’s not stop asking questions about how the contract for bridge repair was awarded? And how many corporate veils need to be pierced to unmask the Big Man, who is culpable for causing death by the rash and negligent act? How long can the master escape vicarious responsibility by surrendering minions? It will be sad if Morbi is forgotten after the din has settled on the electoral battle in the state. Life and death are more than distorted reflections in that cracked mirror.

The slinging match in judiciary continues without a break.

ALSO READ | Morbi bridge: Newlyweds who plunged to their death and a nine-year-old whose cries saved lives 

The pugnacious law minister never misses an opportunity to remind judges of the highest court in the land that they should not cross the Lakshman rekha. Until now none of the Lordships have reciprocated the sentiment as bluntly. Discretion has been the better part of judicial valour. The irony is that our Constitution states that the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of the Constitution. In other words, it's for the top court to draw the red lines that can't be crossed. True, the judiciary itself can't trespass into the domain of legislature and executive, but it is the executive that has been claiming and exercising privilege, leaving the judiciary with few options to push back effectively, defending its turf.  

The law minister’s impatience with judges is understandable. They appear to him as stuck in a time warp, obstructing speedy development and are largely oblivious to the threats to national security. Hence the innovations like affidavits in sealed cover and systematic dismantling of the jurisprudence of bail, and erosion of the citizen's fundamental rights.

Their Lordships have not been unanimous in asserting their constitutional mandate. Nor has the extra-constitutional collegium system worked satisfactorily. The process of appointment of judges, their elevation and transfers is, to put it mildly, opaque and flawed. This is what has given the government the proverbial upper hand. The law ministry sits over the files sent to it, cherry-picks recommendations and doesn’t bother to respond to 'reminders'.

The two-sided shadow boxing is reducing the Majesty of Law. These constitutional issues can't be settled by exchange of barbed words. Time for the apex court to take the call and set up a Bench to remove the ambiguities of the Lakshman rekha(s).

Pushpesh Pant is former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be reached at pushpeshpant@gmail.com.



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