India mourns after Gujarat bridge collapse

Officials pledge to take action for bridge collapse that killed 141, but some believe investigation is turning into a cover up.

People light candles to pay tribute to victims of Sunday's bridge collapse in Morbi town, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, Monday, Oct. 31, 2022. Military teams were searching Monday for people missing after a 143-year-old suspension bridge collapsed into a river Sunday in the western Indian state of Gujarat, sending hundreds plunging into the water and killing at least 133 in one of the country's worst accidents in years. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
People light candles to pay tribute to victims of Sunday's bridge collapse in Morbi town, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, on Monday, October 31, 2022 [Rafiq Maqbool/AP]

Morbi, India – Four-year-old Jiyansh started crying for his parents after hours of being entertained by neighbours, who plied him with toys and sweets.

But his parents, Hardik and Miral Faldu are dead.

There were among at least 141 people who died when the Morbi bridge – a 143-year-old, newly renovated suspension bridge in the western Indian state of Gujarat – collapsed on Sunday.

The Faldu family, along with six of their friends and relatives, were visiting the recently reopened bridge. Three members of the group died, while the rest were rescued. Jiyansh survived with minor injuries.

Habibul’s family is on their way to Gujarat from West Bengal, in eastern India. They sent their 18-year-old son to Morbi to work. He lived there with his uncle, Sheikhbhai.

Habibul went alone to see the bridge, the biggest attraction in Morbi, but he never came back.

“I do not know how I will face his parents,” Sheikhbhai told Al Jazeera. “Habibul had such dreams. Everything is shattered”.

Indian broadcaster NDTV reported that 141 people were killed and 177 people were rescued.

Funeral pyres continued to burn on Monday night. The normally bustling town with a population of more than 268,000 – which is known for its ceramic, clock manufacturing and automobile ancillary industries – has become a ghostly place where grief-stricken people gather at the bridge, hospital, crematoriums and graveyards.

At the Morbi civil hospital, where family members were trying to locate their loved ones and doctors were busy tending to the rescued, there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

“We do not care who is responsible. We do not care how much money they have given us,” said a visibly distraught man at the hospital, of the compensation offered.

“Can they give back my wife and two daughters?” He had also not been able to locate his two nieces, he added.

Patel Bhai said eight members of his family had gone to see the bridge. He had found five bodies, and hoped to find the remaining three people alive.

Ritaben, who was visiting her mother from Gujarat’s Rajkot city, recalled the carnival atmosphere that fateful Sunday. She felt lazy, she said, and didn’t brave the crowds to buy a ticket for the bridge as she was carrying her 10-month-old.

The bridge collapsed before her eyes. “It was like a movie scene. I blinked my eyes but by then it was all over. All it took was 30 seconds. I had seen happy faces taking selfies,” she said. “Next visual was of people jumping  … and screaming. I got absolutely scared.”

 ‘Politics has taken over’

The 1.25-metre (4-foot) wide and 233-metre (764-foot) long pedestrian suspension bridge was inaugurated in 1879 under British colonial rule. The popular tourist site was closed in March for renovations.

The Oreva Group, a local electrical appliances maker that had no prior experience in bridge construction or renovation, was contracted to carry out the work.

In a statement on national television, Shraddha Rajput, a spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), expressed sadness over the deaths but said that Gujarat’s state government had sprung into action.

“Whatever happened is very unfortunate and sad. Action will be taken against all responsible. Nobody will be spared,” she emphasised.

A special investigation team (SIT) has been set up and nine people were arrested on Monday in connection with the tragedy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose home state is Gujarat, is currently campaigning there ahead of state elections. He continued with his scheduled events, but held a meeting on Monday evening to review the rescue and relief work in Morbi with senior state officials.

He is expected to visit Morbi later on Tuesday. The government has also announced a day of statewide mourning set for November 2.

There is growing anger as some accuse Oreva of flouting safety practices and the authorities of failing to properly investigate the disaster.

Local media reported that the company had reopened the bridge to the public without obtaining a “fitness certificate”.

“It should be investigated why the bridge was opened up for the public in such a hasty manner. Was it because of the forthcoming Gujarat Assembly elections?” Manish Doshi of the opposition Congress Party told Al Jazeera.

Oreva chairman Jaysukh Odhavji Patel has not been questioned, neither have any of the 42 Morbi Municipality councillors, all BJP members, or the government officials responsible for awarding the contract, according to police sources.

“What is shocking is that no action is being taken against any BJP functionary involved in this case,” Doshi said.

Oreva, in a statement, expressed sadness over the bridge collapse and deaths.

Top police official, Inspector General Ashok Yadav, told Al Jazeera that the nine arrested were Oreva employees. “Two are managers of Oreva company, two ticket clerks along with two contractors and three security guards for negligence.”

Officials estimate that about 500 people had gathered on the bridge to enjoy the last day of the Hindu Diwali festival but that it was only designed to take 100 to 150 people at a time.

“Morbi has been devastated. We are all still struggling to come to accept the reality,” said Hasmukhbhai, a Morbi resident. “Instead of compassion, sympathy, it is all about politics now over the tragedy.”

Source: Al Jazeera