Morbi Tragedy: An act of God?
How cronyism, a feature of the ‘Gujarat Model’ of development, led to an avoidable tragedy
Morbi in Saurashtra is known as the ceramic city of India, with an estimated thousand units accounting for 70 per cent of India’s ceramic production. It elected a Congress candidate to the Gujarat assembly in 2017, for the first time since 1995. With the Patidar agitation for reservations in full steam, and resentment building steadily over years, the result did not come as a surprise. But Brijeshbhai Mejra’s stint as a Congress MLA was shortlived—he soon defected to the BJP. In a byelection held in 2020, Mejra retained the seat, this time as a BJP candidate, with a reduced vote share.
In June 2017, the BJP regained control of the Morbi municipality after a year and a half, when 15 of 32 Congress councillors defected to the BJP. Morbi, the epicentre of the Patidar quota agitation, had voted the Congress to power in the civic polls in 2016. But the Gujarat government punished the industrial town for voting against the BJP, reducing grants and withdrawing facilities.
This time the Patidar agitation has waned and a Patidar is again in the saddle as chief minister (Anandiben Patel then and Bhupendra Patel now). But Morbi has been restive because the rising costs of energy and inputs have been hurting the competitive edge of the ceramic industry. In August this year, several hundred ceramic units shut down for an entire month, unable to bear the rising production costs. Their plea to reduce prices of gas, coal and raw material cut no ice with the government. The ceramic units were also hit by a decline in demand as the affordable housing sector slowed down.
The demand to upgrade the Morbi municipality also fell on deaf ears, resulting in lower development funds for civic and health infrastructure and equipment. When the suspension bridge on the Machchhu river snapped on Sunday, the fire brigade and rescue services had to be summoned from Rajkot, 65 kilometres away. Clean linen for the Morbi hospital, or at least some of it, in preparation for the Prime Minister’s visit on Tuesday, was rushed from Jamnagar, 105 kilometres away.
There is resentment, therefore, at the crucial time lost in rescue operations. Questions are being asked. If the renovation of the suspension bridge cost only Rs 2 crore, as the Ajanta-Oreva Group has claimed, why couldn’t the municipality handle it?
The 15 year contract for repairs, maintenance and management of the suspension bridge—a tourist attraction and Morbi’s pride—was given to Oreva in March 2022 (i.e. till 2037) without a tender. There was no supervision and the municipality now says that no safety audit was conducted before the repaired bridge was thrown open to the public on October 26, the first day of the Gujarati New Year. No safety certificate was issued either.
Apart from the crony capitalism manifest in the award of the contract, it’s shocking how the state government has sought to distance itself from its civic responsibility for the tragedy.
This man-made disaster could not have come at a worse time for the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. With the assembly election due next month, and Modi in full campaign mode, the Morbi disaster had really bad optics. Chief minister Bhupendra Patel and state home minister Harsh Sanghavi staying back overnight to ‘supervise rescue operations’ raised eyebrows, especially since BJP leaders are known to sneer at ‘disaster tourism’.
Hasty arrangements made for the Prime Minister’s short but extensively photographed and choreographed visit to Morbi added to the heartburn. The hurried overnight renovation of the government hospital at Morbi, with walls given a fresh daub of paint and new water-coolers rushed in, along with mattresses and linen—even as dead bodies were piling up in the mortuary—made for an ugly spectacle. A compensation of Rs 6 lakh for each of the dead (Rs 4 lakh from the state government and Rs 2 lakh from the PM’s National Relief Fund—not PMCARES) was poor consolation for those who had lost relatives.
Priyanka Jogyani lost two of her children on Sunday, a six-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. What will I do with money, she wailed. Vinod from Kutch was more stoical as he showed hospital staff the photograph of a young, recently engaged couple, missing since Sunday. He looked grim in front of the freshly painted wall of the civil hospital, hoping against hope.
Kantaben lost all three of her sons in the tragedy. The oldest, Chirag, had turned 20 and was to begin work at a spectacle-manufacturing unit. Dharmik would turn 18 in a few weeks while the youngest, Chetan, was studying in class X. All three brothers had stepped out to have a good time at the suspension bridge on Sunday but never returned. Kantaben and her husband Rajesh found their lifeless bodies in the hospital past midnight.
Did the Morbi Collector initially refuse to allot the contract to the Oreva Group, as some reports suggest? These unconfirmed reports also suggest that a phone call from Gandhinagar prompted the contract to be awarded once again to the Group in March 2022.
The Group’s management contract had lapsed in 2018 and had not been renewed. But the Group continued to control access to the suspension bridge, say reports from Morbi. The Rs 800 crore group is politically influential—also corroborated by photographs of promoters with BJP eminences—and the charge that the contract went to them for those reasons alone rather than experience in construction and/or maintenance of bridges needs investigation.
What is not disputed is that the Oreva Group, better known for making the Ajanta brand of clocks, was set up by a former science teacher Odhavji Raghavji Patel in 1971.
The Group has diversified into manufacturing home appliances, e-bikes, ceramic products and CFL and LED lights. Its website provides no indication of any construction-related businesses. So, the question being asked is: how does a watchmaker get the contract to repair and manage a 143-year-old suspension bridge?
Clocks and other products made by the Oreva Group, which claims to employ 6,000 people, are exported to over 60 countries. The companies have 25,000 dealers in India and 180 service stations. At the turn of the century, however, the Group employed 15,000 workers.
However, automation and shifting a part of their production to China led to the reduction of the labour force. “We will produce our goods in China and export them to India. It’s not possible for us to run the industry in India,” the Group had claimed in 2001 to Rediff.com.
The Oreva Group, besides the wall clocks sold under the brand names of Ajanta and Orpat, has a strong presence in the lighting and home appliances segment. Described as the ‘Pride of Saurashtra’, it operates a large manufacturing plant spread over 200 acres in Samakhiali in Gujarat’s Kutch district, manufacturing clocks, home appliances, calculators and ceramics.
No tender was floated for the job, apparently on the ground that it was too small a project to call for one. The industrial group was handed over the maintenance contract first in 2008—a contract that lapsed in 2018—and thereafter a fresh contract was signed in March, 2022, handing over the bridge to the Group for 15 years.
An unusual clause in the agreement between the Morbi municipality and Ajanta Manufacturing Private Limited (Oreva group), signed on March 7 this year, stated that there would be no interference from the government or any government agency. Why was such a clause formulated in the first place? The bridge was the property of the state, which had the statutory responsibility to supervise repair and construction and ensure the safety of the people.
While the company retained the right to use the bridge for marketing and branding (a company board at the bridge was hurriedly covered up after the tragedy), it undertook to take care of repairs, maintenance, cleaning, payment collection and staff recruitment. There is considerable confusion about the fee the company was permitted to charge. Some reports claim the agreement allowed the company to charge Rs 15 per adult in 2022-23, along with a provision to revise rates upward by Rs 2 every year until 2027-28. Other reports claim the company was permitted to charge Rs 10 from adults, Rs 7 from children and Rs 2 from students. Screenshots of tickets stamped with Rs 17, and with no serial numbers, went viral after the tragedy.
There is also confusion about the load the bridge could take. While some reports suggest there was once a rule that only 15 people were to be allowed on the bridge at the same time, other reports claim that the bridge could take the load of 125 people. It seems improbable, as some reports have claimed, that only around 600 tickets were sold on October 30 and yet, at 6.30 pm, when the accident occurred, there were 400-600 people on the bridge. The death toll is pegged at 135, and over a hundred were reportedly rescued; with some still missing, it seems quite probable that 200-300 were on the bridge at the time of the accident.
Curiously, while the agreement mentioned all the operational and commercial details, it didn’t include any safety clauses or anything detailing liability in the event of a mishap. In most cases, it would be the operator’s responsibility to ensure safety with the local body retaining supervisory rights. Also missing from the agreement were details like load-bearing capacity, technical specifications of maintenance and periodicity of repair.
What might the political fallout be of this tragedy in the forthcoming assembly elections? In 2017, the Congress bagged 30 of the 54 assembly seats in Saurashtra and Kutch region to the BJP’s 23. In 2012, the Congress got only 16 seats in the region and the BJP 35.
There is growing cynicism among voters about BJP governments bending over backwards to oblige corporates at the cost of the common man. The Morbi tragedy feeds that perception with details that sound suspiciously like the Ajanta-Orevo group benefitted from a sweetheart deal. The Prime Minister, campaigning in the state when the disaster struck, found himself in a Catch-22 situation. There has been widespread criticism of the PM continuing with his campaign the day after the disaster.
Cancelling his programmes and rushing to the site, if at all this was necessary, might have been appreciated more. But choreographing his visit was apparently deemed more important and hence the PM finally landed at Morbi almost 48 hours after the disaster.
Reports that the hospital received a hurried makeover for the VIP visit didn’t go down well either. It also showed up the BJP state government in poor light and the jury is still out on whether the PM’s visit to Morbi helped or harmed the beleaguered chief minister Bhupendra Patel or the BJP in Saurashtra.
People also recalled Modi’s shrill rhetoric in 2016 when a flyover in Kolkata caved in, killing 20 people. The collapse of the flyover, Modi had said, was not an act of God but a message from God to rid the state of its ruling party (Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress).
For people not enamoured of the party or its supreme leader, it was too tempting to not remind him of this at the time Gujarat goes to polls: ‘Act of God’ or ‘Act of Fraud’, a taunt that went viral.