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HomeArchivesMorbi bridge collapse intrigues experts

Morbi bridge collapse intrigues experts

Neither government engineers nor other experts the media talked to are sure of any theory explaining the Morbi bridge collapse except that it was overloaded

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News reports about the collapse of Jhulto Pul, a pedestrian suspension bridge over the Machchhu River in the city of Morbi, Gujarat, since 30 October have obsessed with a clockmaker while engineers, planners, architects etc that the media has spoken to so far are clueless about the exact physical process that led to the cables snapping and the base twisting.

The stories are dominated by politics. An opinionated article in India Today says the BJP is not perturbed by the incident. “We will not politicise this, but if the opposition does, we have our armour ready. The rescue and treatment operations were world-class. The first patient was in the hospital within 18 min of the accident. Disaster relief agencies of the state and union governments worked in tandem. The incident will, in fact, give us an opportunity to showcase how efficiently our administration performed in adversity,” a senior BJP leader was quoted anonymously as saying by the website.

Like the rest of the news media, India Today is swayed by the sheer newsworthiness of a clock manufacturer rather than a construction company getting a contract to renovate a bridge, but a part of the story (highlighted below) reveals they were not clock makers who repaired the bridge. “The maintenance contract was given to a company with no expertise in the area — Oreva, a Morbi-based business house, is known for its wall clocks (Ajanta Manufacturing Ltd) and e-bikes. Oreva subcontracted the renovation and maintenance work to a Dhrangadhra-based company, Devprakash Solution. Is this company approved by the government?” the website quoted Gujarat Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi as saying.

Facts pertaining to the Morbi bridge collapse

As for the facts about the company that everybody is after, Oreva (clocks) is one of several brands of Ajanta Manufacturing Ltd. It diversified long ago to several verticals like diversified into various verticals such as lighting products, e-bikes (battery-operated bikes), home appliances, electrical accessories and electronic products like telephones, calculators, LED TV sets etc.

Ajanta has been involved with the bridge since 2008, raising the question of why nobody raised a finger at this contract for the past 14 years. This, even after both UPA and NDA governments worked on transparency in tendering processes, finally making auctioneering and tendering processes and decisions accessible to ordinary citizens online! Yet, no opposition party raised the issue of a ‘clockmaker’ maintaining the bridge all these years.

And then, the police say that the renovation firm only painted the footbridge and polished the cables. “The contractor seems to have just painted and polished all the cables ahead of the bridge being reopened to the public on 26 October. We haven’t found anything so far to confirm if any of those worn-out cables were changed,” said a police officer privy to the probe. “We are now looking into this aspect in detail.” 

Conspiracy theory: Morbi bridge fell ‘due to resonance’

Meanwhile, soon after the collapse of the bridge, BJP leaders, a few news anchors and unaffiliated Twitter users, including some who appeared on television channels that night, floated a conspiracy theory that this was an act of sabotage caused by “resonance” of deliberate swinging movements of the suspension bridge. The theory gained political credence, as several AAP leaders had tweeted a day before the incident that something earth-shattering would happen the next day, shaking the BJP dispensation.

Morbi bridge collapse intrigues experts (internal image): Tathagata Roy of the BJP

However, on closer scrutiny, the footage of the collapse that surfaced, while showing a man trying to swing the bridge, showed no concerted attempt to swing it in rhythm by others on the bridge who are visible in the video. Without such a rhythm, there would be no resonance.

Experts unsure

What is intriguing, unlike similar suspension bridge collapses, in Morbi, the cables did not snap one by one, said a civil engineering expert, but it appeared they “yielded” altogether. In the parlance of physics, the extent beyond which a stressed object loses its elasticity (cannot regain its size and shape after the force is withdrawn) is called the “yield point”.

Suggesting that renovation, if any, was restricted to the suspended portion of the bridge, the team of engineers that searched for pointers to the collapse said the choice of materials might have played a role in making the structure vulnerable by increasing its weight. The number of people on the bridge when it collapsed far exceeded its capacity, adding to the risk of the cables snapping.

“We are probing if the tension generated on the cables because of the increased weight of the suspended structure and a large number of people could have caused them to snap,” an official said.

“Video suggested to me that the bridge’s suspension cables first snapped and then the bridge got twisted, leaving people in the river. Maybe steel wires reached their ultimate strength, but we don’t know yet. The ultimate strength of wires is basically when they reach their expiry date. We must wait for the probe report,” Prof Sewa Ram, School of Planning and Architecture, says.

Based on the primary inspection, the technical team was of the view that the renovation had been neither carried out nor assessed by someone with expertise in that field. “The work was apparently executed by local vendors and sub-contractors without any expert supervision. We are investigating if and how this was allowed,” the official said.

The initial response to the collapse of the bridge and how the evacuation was handled indicated there was no plan for an emergency, the team noted.

What we know for sure

What is known about the 230 m by 1.25 m pedestrian suspension bridge in Morbi with absolute certainty is that the British-era bridge — the exact date of its inauguration in the 19th century is unknown — was meant to withstand the load of a mere 15 people, as the builder Waghji Thakore had said in the 1880s.

While 141 are confirmed dead and more than 100 injured from the incident, reports say the traffic of pedestrians on the Morbi bridge was as high as 500. For the tourists, the price of a ticket was Rs 15 for an adult visitor and Rs 10 for a child below 12 years for the years 2022-23 according to the contract. It could be then increased by Rs 2 a year for the next 6 years. There was a discrepancy in the prices charged as well. Tickets sold on Sunday were priced at Rs 17 for an adult and Rs 12 for a child.

One is sure, therefore, that the cause of the collapse is overload.

In independent India, the bridge has been the Morbi municipality’s responsibility. The municipality signed a contract with the Morbi-based private trust Oreva for maintenance and operations on 7 March 2022.

The 15-year contract was with Oreva’s flagship company, Ajanta Manufacturing Private Limited, which had been involved with the bridge since 2008. The agreement covered the maintenance and management of the bridge.

As already said earlier, the company does various things other than merely making clocks. Although none of its verticals is construction, Gujarat Congress’s Doshi rightly said the upkeep had been subcontracted. The chief official of the municipality Sandipsinh Zala said that they did not receive any renovation details from the private contractor, which could have been used for a quality check, and further issuance of a fitness certificate before the bridge was opened. Zala said that while the company that makes Oreva clocks had shown interest in renovating the bridge, it was only through media reports that they came to know about the renovation process.

The toll bridge reopened on 26 October 2022 on the occasion of the Gujarati New Year, after being closed for repairs for six months. At the re-opening ceremony, Oreva’s managing director told reporters people could enjoy a “care-free adventure” and the bridge would not need any major work for another 8-10 years. Clearly, the facts flew in the face of his confidence.

Initial reports said that the bridge was reopened early after repairs and without the required certificate of fitness from the local civic authorities. The chief officer of the municipality, who had given the contract for repairs after the 2001 earthquake, said the private firm responsible for the renovations “threw the bridge open to visitors without notifying us, and therefore, we couldn’t get a safety audit of the bridge conducted”.

The absence of government consent is also the maximum that even the BJP is saying at the moment in its defence. Unless a media house can quote a spokesperson of the ruling party — not anonymously — saying it does not care, journalists like Jumana Shah, whose byline the India Today story carries, are misleading the people.

Among the suspects arrested are junior workers of Oreva, ticket booking clerks and security guards.

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