Majerhat Bridge is suddenly nobody’s baby. A day after it collapsed and left two people dead in Kolkata, a case of culpable homicide has been filed. But the first information report or FIR has been filed against unknown persons – in other words – nobody.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who rushed to Majerhat immediately after landing in Kolkata from north Bengal, obliquely pointed fingers at the Metro construction going on next to the bridge.
“Local people have said when piling goes on at the Metro rail site, the whole area vibrates like an earthquake has struck. That used to happen during construction of the Kolkata Metro also. That is practical. We are not playing down any angle. Nor do we want to give some angle a certificate and get diverted from the real issues,” Ms Banerjee said.
Earlier in the day, her top minister Firhad Hakim, who looks after the Urban Affairs ministry, sounded the same note.
Asked if he agreed with the popular perception that the Majerhat Bridge was poorly maintained, he said, “No I don’t think that. I have seen this bridge since childhood. On the contrary I will say that the huge construction going on beside the bridge… I am not an engineer but as a layman, the heavy piling for it has vibrated the structure of the bridge and that could be a cause of the fall-down.”
Last night itself, however, RVNL, the executing agency for construction of the Joka-Esplanade Metro corridor that is building a station at Majerhat, issued a statement denying any link to the bridge collapse. “The collapse is a mid-span girder failure,” the statement said, “There is no relationship between the Metro construction and the mid-span girder failure… The Metro has stopped construction in the area one year ago.”
Top bridge building engineer Amitabh Ghoshal agrees. “It is a pre-stressed, pre-cast concrete girder failure and has nothing to do with Metro piling. In fact, the Majerhat bridge is also piling-based. If Metro construction had affected the bridge, pilings that must be some 60 feet deep, then the piers would have also collapsed, not the slab.”
Neither the growing weight of repeatedly-applied layers of bitumen nor the age of the bridge, nor the dead weight on the bridge were reasons for the collapse, Mr Ghoshal said. The weight of bitumen and increased load of traffic are factored in when the bridge is constructed. As for the age, there are many bridges in Kolkata that are nearly 100 years old.
“What is needed is regular inspection and regular maintenance. And there does not seem to be a stable maintenance protocol for the road bridges,” he added. Mr Ghoshal is advisor to Stup Consultants, well-known in engineering circles. He was also a member of one of many panels probing the collapse of the Posta flyover in 2016.
“I have no idea what happened to the probe. I have not seen a report on it yet,” he said.
Another engineer has special reason to be angry with the slackness over maintenance. Sisir Chakraborty, director of C Doctor & Co, who specializes in tunnel ventilation as in Metro tunnels and others, was in a white taxi crossing the Majerhat Bridge when the bridge fell away beneath him.
“I have got a second life. And I think, not just Majerhat, I think we have similar risks for the other bridges. We must be very, very careful. As a practicing engineer, I can tell you,” he said.
“What is the preventive maintenance protocol of these bridges? There should be a white paper by the government and given to the people about it so that we can check whether necessary steps have been taken,” he said, adding, “It’s my life. No one has the right to play with my life.”
As she was leaving the Majerhat Bridge after a brief media statement, Mamata Banerjee was asked by reporters which agency was in charge of the structure. The chief minister did not respond to the question.