reportage

The Emergency

Does anyone know the state of India’s bridges?

By RAHUL BHATIA | 1 June 2013

“DON’T BURY THEM IN THE MORNING”

 

IT WAS ALMOST LUNCHTIME when the school kids made a run for it. A blur of red-and-grey chequered uniforms, they were hoisted onto scooters and crammed into autos parked in the light rain outside Our Lady of Fatima Convent High School. The school, and the moss-tinged Portuguese fort it sat in, shone in the August drizzle. A wet road led down to a breach in the fort’s walls, beyond which the land swelled to a crest over a muddy river. On this side was Moti Daman, where the district’s administrative offices were sheltered within the fort’s stone ramparts. On the other side, the northern side, were Nani Daman’s liquor stores, beaches, and hotels. Together, these two halves formed the tranquil seaside town of Daman, held fast by the town’s only bridge, a workaday construction 20 years old.

Fakir Mohammad Fadra, a wiry cable-service operator with a purposeful walk, lived at the eastern end of the Nani Daman promenade. A thicket of mangroves obscured the view of the bridge from the front door of his house, but the Daman Ganga River, only feet away, he could see just fine—and on that day in the summer of 2003, the river looked swollen, as it often did when officials at the dam upstream released water. He couldn’t help keeping watch. Twice in his lifetime the river had burst its banks, forcing the town’s residents onto rooftops for airdropped supplies.

It was nearly 1.30 pm—time for his four children and four nieces to return from school to the home he shared with the families of his brother and sister. The Fadras were old faces in the small town of 36,000; Daman knew Fadra as ‘Baba’, and after all this time, it recognised him by no other name. (“Fakir who? Oh, Baba!”) Residents on both sides of the river subscribed to his cable television service. He had lately begun to feel that goons had overrun the trade, and had hired a hefty young man to help him run the service—the muscle to Fadra’s lean frame. The previous year, his father, Captain Nizamuddin Fadra, had died from prostate cancer after a long and rich life lived mostly on the sea. Towards the end, the captain told his wife to make sure she looked after their 14-year-old granddaughter Tafsir, one of Fadra’s daughters, whom they both adored.

“That day, she didn’t want to go to school,” Fadra told me when I visited his home. Tafsir smiled down from a studio photograph on a shelf in his sitting room. She loved school, and he couldn’t remember her missing a day. But that morning, Tafsir asked her parents if she could stay at home instead. The request was so unusual that they agreed. Then Tafsir changed her mind, as teenagers do, and left. She was excited, Fadra remembered: she had always wanted to go to London—Fadra had a brother in Gloucester—and they had just applied for her first passport. “Abba, when I go to London, I’ll send you money back,” she told him.

When he realised the time, the rickshaw driver who picked up the Fadra children each day put down his afternoon drink at a bar by the bridge, and hurried to Our Lady of Fatima. The kids were already walking home when he met them outside the school. “You’re always late. We’re not getting in,” they told the driver. So he turned the auto back toward Nani Daman, driving carefully over the bridge between students on foot, the narrow structure vibrating beneath them.

Constable Kinjalkumar Patel, on traffic signal duty, had stopped vehicles at Nani Daman so that people coming from the school’s direction could cross the bridge. The structure was built for a smaller Daman: at three-and-a-half metres, it wasn’t wide enough to let two small cars pass each other. As Patel directed traffic, the rickshaw Fadra had sent to fetch the kids went by, empty. A few more approached. One carried two kids and Mrs Pandya, one of the school’s language teachers. The other had 10 young passengers. Motorcycles and scooters zipped across the bridge’s puddled surface.

Bharat Patel, a young math teacher, carried test papers to grade at home as he crossed on foot. “He was a young gentleman,” Pandya said. “Very active, very good.” He would have been home sooner, but had forgotten the papers at Our Lady of Fatima, and had turned back to retrieve them. Pooja Pathak, a seventh-grader—and Pandya’s niece—was also walking across the bridge. “She liked my teaching. In the morning Pooja told me, ‘Maami, I want to come home and study [with you]’,” Pandya said. Then there were the eight Fadra cousins, with Fadra’s son, Aiyaz, up to mischief: he kicked up rainwater on the bridge at his pigtailed sisters and cousins. “Catch him and beat him!” they shouted, as his sisters Uzma and Tehzeeb ran madly behind him. Tafsir held back from chasing her brother to chat with her cousins Sumaiya, Afza, Sana and Farheen. It was afternoon now, and fishing boats bobbed in the whippy river below the long, crowded bridge.

JUST AFTER 1.30 PM, as Pandya and two children motored in a rickshaw past pier five—the support closest to Nani Daman—a strained joint over the pier snapped. Pandya heard a loud bang, and then the earth shifted. “Don’t ask me about it,” she told me. “I still hear it.”

The bridge’s tensive bonds were unravelling. Several tons of steel and asphalt yanked in opposite directions. The rickshaw Pandya was in lurched backward, its nose lifting toward the sky, and the two children beside her tumbled out onto the road. The rickshaw slammed back down. From inside, she reached out for the bridge railing, while the driver scrambled over the bridge’s wet surface to catch both children. Pandya didn’t know what was going on, but the section they were on had first broken at the pier, and almost immediately at the abutment, where the bridge met the land. She heard children in the water below, screaming for help. Holding on was hard enough, she told me, and she hadn’t dared turn around to look at them. Within minutes, fishermen approached her in their rocking boats, and told her to jump in, but she gripped the railing in white-knuckled terror.

Leena Fegade, a nine-year-old, had been crossing the bridge on foot beside her mother. They were behind Pandya’s rickshaw, and nearly across the river, when the bridge plunged beneath their feet. On her way down, Leena managed to catch hold of a rod pegged to the bridge. She looked about in panic, but her mother had disappeared. “The fishermen who were in the water … told me to leave the rod and jump in,” she later told the police. Leena let go and fell down into the water; the fishermen plucked her out and left her on the river’s north bank.

When the bridge’s first joint split, the strain led to more fractures. The span broke in four places, forming a W-shaped heap of metal. As they fell, Sharda, Leena’s mother, lost hold of her daughter’s hand. Children around her were drowning. She didn’t know where Leena was. She couldn’t move. Something had pinned her leg underwater. Whatever was holding her down was heavy, so the fishermen who came to rescue her had to pull her out of the river with a force that dislocated her leg, leaving her in agony. They took her to shore, where she found Leena among the other survivors.

Fadra was at home when he heard the noise and the human roar that followed. He ran past the narrow homes of fishermen that lined the promenade, towards the bridge. There he saw his children Aiyaz and Tehzeeb standing about a dozen metres from the abutment, behind a parked car. His daughter Uzma was nearby, but Fadra didn’t notice her. What happened? he remembered asking Tehzeeb. Where is Uzma and everyone else? “Tehzeeb saw the disaster, and she couldn’t say anything,” Fadra told me. “Aiyaz said that the bridge broke with them in the middle.”

Fadra didn’t wait. He dove into the river. Taut mooring ropes that held fishing boats in high tide tore skin from his arms. As he swam, he noticed Pandya—who had once been his teacher—standing on a tilted section of the broken bridge. She waved at him. A little further, he felt the sensation of an electrical current. Over time, the bridge had acquired dead load in the form of new power lines, telephone wires and water pipes that ran along its length and, as he passed by, Fadra thought that the severed wires were electrifying the water. “They turned off the electricity later,” he told me. He climbed out of the river at pier five, and onto a broken stretch of the bridge. From there he pressed forward to the school to look for his daughters and nieces, but couldn’t find them. He returned to the bridge and surveyed the damage, and now the terrible thought he had resisted all along bore down on him: his brother had lost all three daughters, and his sister, whose husband had died years earlier, had now lost her only child; two of his own children were gone. He was suddenly so tired.

Daman’s residents poured out of its narrow streets and massed by the bridge, pressing against the town’s small police force, which was trying to let emergency responders work. The police had come almost immediately; within minutes of the collapse, every man and woman was ordered to report to work, and all other business was put aside. Within an hour, a coast-guard helicopter droned overhead, circling the river and looking for survivors. Residents offered to carry the injured to nearby hospitals in their own cars. A photographer from Naaz, a local photo shop, filmed the broken bridge, and took pictures of the dead as they came out of the water.

At 3 pm, the bodies of Sumaiya, Afza, Sana, Farheen and Tafsir were found by rescuers and fishermen under debris at pier five. “All five of them were found in one place,” Fadra told me. “They were all together, no?” From a plastic bag he carefully pulled out a picture of the five girls laid beside each other. “It was difficult, but I kept this one copy of them. That’s them. One, two, three, four, five.”

When the cousins’ bodies were brought back, Fadra noticed that their skin had turned dark in places. He was certain the marks were electrical burns. (The children’s autopsies, however, made no mention of this, and a police officer I inquired with seemed puzzled by the claim.) A relative who worked with the district administration soon came to meet with Fadra and the family. In a room down a passage from the front door, the five girls lay shrouded in white at their mothers’ feet. The relative pleaded with the family: “Don’t bury them in the morning.” The collapse had killed 28 school children and two adults, and the town had been on edge all day. “He said that people were angry,” Fadra recalled, “and if they saw the children, they would riot.”

 

“TECHNICALLY SAFE AND SOUND.”

THE DAMAN BRIDGE SPANNED NEARLY 265 METRES between abutments. From the side, its steel supports, below the deck, resembled a row of touching Xs held up by unevenly spaced piers. It was similar to Bailey bridges, which are built from prefabricated modular sections, and used by armies and others for quick assembly of temporary crossings.

This was the bridge’s latest incarnation. During the five decades before it opened, in 1983, the town had seen other bridges rise and fall. When one, built in 1932, failed, it took two people down with it, a former resident writing a book on Daman told me. In 1965, a company named Shah Constructions was contracted to build a bridge where the first one had stood. Three years later, this too collapsed. The same company rebuilt it, but, in 1976, a stretch of the bridge deck was washed away.

In September 1978, the local administration called for bids to restore the failed bridge, and an Indian company named Quadricon won the contract based on a projected cost of Rs 31.8 lakh (Rs 3.18 million), the lowest of five bids. Quadricon’s founders had patented a modular system in which prefabricated steel triangles were held together by Quadricon’s ‘unishear’ connectors—solid steel blocks that held the triangles in a tight embrace. (With occasional maintenance, the patented union was built to last over seven decades). The system was inexpensive, popular—in time, the company would build over 200 bridges—and supposedly efficient. But there were delays to the project, and the bridge was finally ready only on 26 April 1983.

The structure was without frills: a simple walkway above modular units placed on wide piers. It was a temporary measure, meant only for pedestrians and emergency vehicles, until a larger bridge was built. But plans for the bigger bridge were delayed, and the temporary measure became a permanent one. Bikes, cars and buses motored across regularly, and there were no limits to how fast they could go. “We allowed … 20 vehicles on the bridge” at a time, JG Rana, a former superintending engineer for Daman’s public works department (PWD), later testified. At night, trucks brimming with cargo headed for Gujarat drove over it in full view of a police outpost one street away, Fadra told me. “It wasn’t allowed, but they used to go.” At the same time, Daman began to swell with an influx of migrants attracted by new manufacturing jobs in the area—the population would double between 1981 and 2001—and by 2003, one in three families owned a vehicle of some kind. They all used the bridge.

Warning signs that the bridge needed repairs repeatedly went unheeded. In May 1997, an engineer new to Daman’s PWD noticed that one of the roller bearings, which allowed the bridge to expand in the heat and contract in cold without damaging the piers beneath, had shifted out of position. “I had reported this fact to the superintending engineer as well as executive engineer, and I brought them on the site and had shown the displaced bearing to them,” the engineer, J Prabhakar, later said to an investigative committee. Prabhakar found more bearings that were out of position. The bridge, he thought, was past its use-by date. “I used to remind Rana [the superintending engineer] about the displaced bearings,” Prabhakar told the committee. “I had also cautioned my superiors that the guarantee period of the life span of the bridge was over and it was necessary to check [with] experts [about] structural stability.” Daman PWD officials wrote to Quadricon, who advised that the bearing could be put back in place, but that it would be necessary to investigate why the displacement had occurred. It is unclear, however, if any attempt was made to discern the cause of the dislocation.

Letters and documents I obtained from the Home Ministry under the Right to Information Act revealed that after Quadricon’s chairman personally visited the bridge to inspect the bearings in 1998, the company sent a letter to the Daman PWD, warning that repairs were urgently needed. The letter noted that when the bridge was built, Quadricon had recommended applying to the steel bridge a thick coat of zinc paint with another coat of zinc chromate, to keep corrosion at bay. Instead, Quadricon’s letter noted, epoxy paint had been used. “The bridge structure is exposed to severe corrosive atmosphere,” the letter said. “There was a lot of corrosion visible all throughout the structure.”

SOME SAY THE SOIL IS DIFFICULT there. Some believe there are other forces at work. “When we were little boys, my grandmother and aunt always kept a watch on us,” Cedric Pereira, now a businessman in Hong Kong, told me as we waited outside Daman’s Church of Our Lady of the Sea for the end of mass one recent Sunday. “Every ten minutes, every five minutes—where we were, what we were doing.” Daman’s luck with bridges was unfathomably poor, and so its people sought comfort in what they couldn’t explain. “There was a belief that the blood of sacrificed children was used to strengthen foundations,” Pereira told me; when the bridge fell in 2003, some in the town believed “the children who went into the water were invited by the children sacrificed there.”

During the 20 years before it collapsed, the bridge connecting Nani and Moti Daman sat exposed, a few hundred metres from India’s western coast, unprotected from sea air and tides. Bridges in a marine environment are particularly vulnerable: salt in the water, and in the moist air, hastens their decay. When I visited the town in February, the effects of the salty air were visible near an old Portuguese market several streets from the shore. It had chewed through window gratings and the handlebars of motorbikes and bicycles. Pandya, the language teacher, said that her television set conked off regularly. “It’s the salt in the air,” her daughter explained; it had corroded the television’s circuitry. Researchers at the offices of the National Institute of Oceanography in Mumbai told me they visit Daman regularly to test the water. “I have been there a hundred times,” the chief researcher said. A subordinate he summoned, who dealt with numbers, said that the “salinity fluctuation was from 5 to 30” grams of salt per litre of water, making the Daman Ganga, at its highest extreme, only slightly less salty than the Dead Sea.

The water contained further hazards. In 1999, Greenpeace collected a sample from a black stream of waste flowing into the river from the direction of an effluent treatment plant at Vapi, a dusty industrial town seven kilometres upstream from Daman. The sample revealed disquieting levels of cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc.

Prolonged interaction with such pollutants shortens the lifespan of bridges. A scientist at the oceanography institute said that the problem had been magnified by the Madhuban dam’s construction upriver from Vapi and Daman. The water’s natural flow had been interrupted. “The waste just settles there,” he said. “It doesn’t move.”

If the Daman PWD was aware of the severe environment the bridge existed in, there are few signs they strove to protect the structure in a meaningful way. The Daman Ganga River had grown more toxic with each passing year, researchers explained. The scientist, who had regularly measured pollution levels there, said that the industrial waste in the river was only “semi-treated”. “It is acidic,” he told me. “Even cement will corrode there. I have been there 20 or 25 times over 20 years. I’ve noticed oxygen depletion, an increase in ammonia and nitrate.” Earlier, “the problem had a single source,” he said. “Now there are multiple problems and multiple sources of pollution.” (By the time I visited, the water had become so toxic that there were now no fish in the river, Govind, a former fisherman now guarding a house at Moti Daman, told me.)

In 2000, two tenders for “repairs, rehabilitation and strengthening of existing bridge over Daman Ganga River” were issued by the PWD. Cracks needed grouting. “Heavily rusted parts” had to be strengthened by welding new supports to older ones. The rusting surface required thick coats of protective paint. The tenders were to the same end, but the PWD split the estimated overall cost of Rs 96 lakh (Rs 9.6 million) into two smaller contracts, which allowed it to circumvent a rule requiring approval from a higher authority for contracts over Rs 70 lakh. Freyssinet, an engineering company vying for the contract, bid for both tenders at a projected cost of Rs 91.5 lakh; it was the lowest overall bid the PWD received. The contract also stated that Freyssinet had to maintain the bridge for a further six months after completing the repairs.

Quadricon, Freyssinet and Prabhakar, the PWD engineer, knew that the bridge was only as strong as its weakest component, but workers could only rehabilitate parts of the bridge within their reach. Some places would need to be accessed from a viewing platform lowered from the side of the bridge, but such a platform didn’t exist at Daman. Repeatedly, the companies and Prabhakar advised the administration to construct a viewing platform below the bridge, but this was never done. As a result, inspectors and engineers could not possibly assess the bridge’s strength, and repair work could not fully be carried out.

(Sometime before 2003, during an echo-test to determine the Daman Ganga’s depth, researchers from the National Institute of Oceanography passed under the bridge in a boat and found that silt had accumulated on one side of the piers, and the river bed had eroded on the other. The phenomenon, called scour, was not uncommon to river bridges, but under extreme conditions, such as a flood, a bridge could be at risk. “If the water flow is strong enough, the bridge can collapse because the base is unsteady,” a researcher from the institute told me.)

Although the bridge’s maladies were multiplying, the PWD’s engineers continued to certify that nothing was wrong with it. When the rehabilitation work concluded in June 2001, Bharat Gupta, the executive engineer of Daman’s PWD at the time, handed over a ‘completion certificate’ to Freyssinet. In December, Gupta wrote to his boss, the superintending engineer DK Vaghela, “Since there is no apparent defect in the completed work and the maintenance period is also over … it is proposed to release 100% total Security Deposit amounting to Rs 740,126.00” to Freyssinet.

In March 2003, five months before the collapse, the bridge was once again deemed officially safe. Gupta wrote in a routine inspection certificate: “It is to certify that the existing bridge connecting Moti Daman and Nani Daman has been inspected by the undersigned on 25/03/2003 and on inspection it is observed and found that various structures of the Bridge appear to be technically safe and sound and the same are in normal working conditions.”

 

“THE SYSTEM IS SO CORRUPT, IT’S BETTER TO BYPASS IT.”

IN APRIL OF THIS YEAR, three hydraulic trailers carrying enormous loads left a Mumbai port for the Power Grid Corporation of India, in Indore. Each hauled a consignment weighing over 200 tons. They travelled through Maharashtra until the bustling border check post at Madhya Pradesh. To reach their destination, the trailers would have to cross four bridges along a 184-kilometre stretch of National Highway 3 built and operated by two private companies. The private operators asked the trucks to wait, and referred the case to the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), an arm of the Ministry of Road Transportation and Highways that controls over 30,000 kilometres of national roads. Vijay Shrivastava, an NHAI project director who oversees that section of the highway, refused. “These bridges are on build-operate-transfer basis,” Shrivastava told me, referring to the terms of the contract, which require the private firm to operate and maintain the highways and bridges for a set period after their construction. “Why can’t the operators take care of it?”

Both the NHAI and the concessioners who built the highway were reluctant to let the trailers pass because they weren’t sure whether the bridges could handle the weight. In January, the ministry had issued guidelines, drafted by a consortium of engineering firms, that detailed the rules for dealing with overweight loads, but Shrivastava was wary of the specifications the official document contained, and he didn’t trust the hydraulic trailer companies. “Would you believe a transporter carrying a piece of paper that specified the weight of the cargo?” he said.

According to Shrivastava, the bridges were built to handle weights under 150 tons. “Suppose I carry 25 kg on my shoulders,” he said. “I can walk safely. But suppose you load 50 kg on my shoulders. I can carry it to some extent. But what will happen to my body if I carry it again and again? That is the case with bridges. They can carry the load, but you can’t assess the damage immediately. Some distress can occur at a later stage. The lifespan can be reduced. So why should one allow overweight loads?”

While the trailers headed to Indore stood still at the check post for weeks, representatives from the Hydraulic Trailer Owners Association spoke with officers at the roads ministry. The chief engineer of bridges in India, Arun Pathak, told NHAI to let the trailers pass. Here, official initiative faced on-the-ground reality: if a bridge failed under the weight of the trailers, Shrivastava knew that, as the man in charge of this stretch of the highway, he alone would be held accountable. “Everybody knows that the minister”—and people up the official hierarchy—“will not be held responsible,” he told me. His fears were well-founded: the people closest to the site of an accident are often the first to be held accountable. In 2009, a bridge near Bhavnagar in Gujarat buckled under a 132-wheel hydraulic trailer delivering its first consignment, a 280-ton gas turbine meant for a power plant. Five people were killed, and the driver was arrested.

Manish Kataria, the joint secretary of the Hydraulic Trailer Owners Association, told me that one of his trailers was currently stalled in Orissa because “goons” were demanding a bribe to let it pass. He said it was typical of how his business was conducted in both legal and extralegal channels, but argued that only the defenceless found themselves in trouble. “It’s like the girl who belongs to the village,” he said, after searching for what he thought was a reasonable metaphor. “Everyone has their way with her.”

Eventually, the trailers turned around and took an 1,800-kilometre detour, through Gujarat and Rajasthan, to Indore. “The project was delayed by three months,” Kataria said. And yet, this wasn’t the longest delay he knew of. Kataria had seen a project held back by six months for the same reason on National Highway 3. The trailer had spent four months at one spot, until the ministry issued specific orders to let it through, he said. “The rest of the journey was finished in 20 days. The system is so corrupt, it’s better to bypass it.”

BRIDGE FAILURES are always sudden; their causes rarely are. Daman’s was a story of incremental neglect that ended in disaster. Each count of neglect was a breach of the implicit assurance of safety given by those who build and maintain bridges to those who use them without questioning their stability. Yet the institutional failures that led to disaster in Daman continue to prevail across the country.

For years now, great things have been planned for India’s infrastructure. Last June, Manmohan Singh promised to approve nearly 10,000 kilometres of new highways, port projects worth Rs 35,000 crore (Rs 350 billion), new airports, and other necessary development. At a conference in March of this year, he said that expenditure on infrastructure between 2012 and 2017 needed to double to $1 trillion. In 1996, the roads ministry was responsible for 33,000 kilometres of national highways and 6,400 bridges. Seventeen years later, it oversees 79,116 kilometres of national highways and, according to official estimates, around 20,000 bridges. The roads ministry’s annual expenditure in 2009–10 was six times what it spent in 1999–2000. During the same period, the number of registered vehicles doubled to 115 million. The agenda, as befits a country on the up, is all about the new things that need to be built, not about the infrastructure that needs fixing.

But here’s what has happened: since 2008, at least six bridges have failed under the weight of heavy vehicles. All told, in the past 12 years there have been over 23 bridge failures in India, killing 310 people and injuring more than 450. Wood bridges, steel bridges, vehicular bridges, pedestrian bridges. Old bridges, and even new bridges. Some are faulty from the start. Three months ago, a Kolkata flyover that had been built only two years earlier collapsed; a committee formed after the failure found that the bridge’s design was flawed.

Modern infrastructure is built on a foundation of older constructions. As spending increases, the success of new ventures will, in large part, hinge on how well India’s existing network of roads and bridges holds up. This was the tack taken by hydraulic trailer owners I spoke to. They were keen to tell me that in the end, India would pay the bill for freight held up by doubts over the health of its bridges. Everyday, Kataria told me, consignments like the one headed to Indore are suspended in a logistical purgatory in various parts of the country. “If you look at the last 50 years, earlier these consignments were rare, and they were not as heavy,” Kataria told me. “Now, instead of carrying a status unit for a 250MW power plant, we are carrying loads five times bigger for 1200MW power plants.” These enormous objects, mystifying when seen in isolation, are the ingredients of India’s vaunted infrastructure push, but they linger on roadsides because bridges along national highways aren’t built to support them.

A dizzying configuration of private and public agencies manages India’s 4.7-million-kilometre-long road and bridge network. The Union roads ministry oversees most national highways, but the upkeep of roads and bridges is left to the public works departments of the states those highways pass through. Some national highways that don’t come under the ministry belong to the NHAI and consortiums of private operators. Others are looked after by the Border Roads Organisation. This alone makes the transport of heavy loads challenging. “It’s very difficult to find out who controls a bridge,” Kataria said to me, describing the absence of signboards and other necessary markers. It was not unusual for freight companies to spend a month figuring out jurisdictions so that they could apply for permission to use a particular route. “Government bridges are the easiest,” he said. “It is the private operators who cause a problem.” To hasten permissions, often from officials on the ground, consultants told me it was routine to pay government employees bribes; private operators, it is believed, aren’t as easily swayed.

As India spends more on upgrading its road network, each of these bodies has more work to do. Yet, while spending on new projects has increased, allocations meant for the maintenance of existing infrastructure are nowhere near enough. According to data collected by a group of researchers, including Sanjay Wakchaure, a joint director at the Indian Academy of Highway Engineers, approximately Rs 890 crore (Rs 8.9 billion) was allocated from 2008 to 2012 by the ministry and states to maintain 93,000 bridges all over India. This works out to approximately Rs 19,000 for each bridge annually. “Generally, funds made available for the maintenance of roads and bridges are about 40 to 50 percent of the requirement,” Wakchaure told me. There simply isn’t enough money to ensure that bridges and roads are checked regularly, as codes laid down by the Indian Roads Congress (IRC), a society founded by the central government which gives officials a template for work on roads and bridges, prescribe.

Bridge consultants and a former roads ministry official told me that a bridge safety crisis has been brewing for some time. Because there are greater stresses than ever before, problems once ignored are now seeing daylight. Of the many problems that now lay exposed, none was as startling as what the chief engineer of bridges in India told me: nobody knows the state of India’s bridges.

A bridge has a shelf life. From the moment of its creation, it begins to weaken. Guidelines written by the IRC state that surface material erodes, and then what lies beneath it erodes, too. This decay occurs constantly, like the wearing of enamel. Rumbling vehicular traffic leads to fatigue corrosion, the atrophying of a material due to regular stresses. Where different metals are welded together, they risk galvanic corrosion because of their dissimilar elemental properties. Under adverse conditions, such corrosion drills deceptively deep.

Checking roads is relatively easy. They exist on one plane, and a visual inspection can suffice. Not so bridges, with their abutments, tread, decking, truss, stringer and bearings. Searching for a bridge’s defects requires focus and time. “A 100-metre long stretch of bridge needs a week to inspect,” NK Sinha, a senior consultant who was previously the director general for roads in the ministry, said to me. “At most you can do 200 metres. You have to do it properly. Even if it’s a new bridge, you need to see the condition of the bearings, other things … In a day? To inspect the whole thing? No.” But the engineers in PWDs across the country are generalists. Training programs exist at the Indian Academy of Highway Engineers; just how many engineers have attended the programs is unknown.

The increase in the quantity and weight of road traffic, the administrative morass, and the shortfall in budgets and trained inspectors have also been compounded by venality. Consultants I spoke with pointed at two recent bridge failures involving hydraulic trailers carrying heavy loads in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. They said that government departments were so unsure of the state of bridges that hydraulic trailer companies had to hire private engineering companies approved by the roads ministry to inspect them. Only then would they be allowed to proceed along that route. “To use one of the road ministry’s [approved] consultants to examine bridges for a project costs Rs 20 lakh,” Kataria said. “We don’t get paid that much to haul cargo.”

The ministry has no way of knowing if its bridges are on the verge of failure. But it has attempted to protect itself: official paperwork states that if bridges fail during the transport of heavy goods, the transportation company will be held responsible. Not only is the testing of its bridges outsourced by the ministry, so is the liability.

“HOW COULD MY PROFESSION DO THIS?”

THERE SEEMED TO BE NO END to the horror in Daman. All day the drowned were extracted from the river, their larynxes logged with water, within sight of a crowd of restive parents who demanded to see their children. Terse post-mortems, so hurriedly written that they were nearly illegible, contained brutal observations: “On pressure, bubbles come out of nostrils and mouth.” In one report, the coroner wrote, almost hesitantly, “The deceased may be dead due to drowning.”

That night, the district police inspector for Daman, EJ Rosario, filed a complaint against the local PWD. “It appears that the Daman Ganga Bridge was not maintained properly and the bridge collapsed due to negligence,” Rosario wrote. He charged the department with endangering life, causing grievous hurt, causing death by negligence, and “mischief causing damage to public property”. The complaint did not explain how Rosario concluded that negligence and a lack of maintenance led to the failure.

The dead Fadra cousins lay shrouded at their mothers’ feet for hours as officials continued to worry that the sight of so many young victims would push the town, already on edge, to revolt. As night fell, however, a crowd of mourners gathered outside the Fadra home, and, at two in the morning—twelve hours after the collapse—a funeral procession left for a nearby cemetery, where the five female cousins were buried together, their names on a single gravestone. For the next two days, Daman rioted. Crowds on the street torched cars and pelted the police with stones. Reserve forces were called in. The crowds were fired upon, and one person died.

When the bridge collapsed, the practices of the local PWD were forced into the open. The Union government’s accounting office raised questions about financial irregularities. A retired justice of the Bombay High Court, RJ Kochar, led a judicial inquiry that found systemic failures wherever he looked. The department lacked a maintenance kit. Warnings from above and below were reportedly ignored. Load tests to check the bridge’s capacity were not carried out, even though an assistant engineer alerted his superiors to the possibility that the structure was unsound. Engineers claimed they had inspected the bridge, but there were few details about their findings because the PWD did not keep maintenance journals. One senior engineer did not visit the bridge, as the IRC codes recommended, but instead relied on the assurances of his subordinates.

Kochar learnt that the bridge was flawed from the very beginning. While the steel used for the bridge was mostly “mechanically” sound, its chemistry did not meet the specifications laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards for steel used in “general structural purposes”. The steel had not been tested, the PWD engineers testified before Kochar’s inquiry, because it came from the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL), and they assumed it therefore met the specifications. Besides, none of them knew that testing was mandatory.

Professors at the National Metallurgical Laboratory in Jamshedpur, who were asked to examine the remains of the collapsed bridge, wrote, “The corrosion rate of the used steel was abnormally high in comparison to the other structural steel normally used for erection of bridges.” Corrosion tests were conducted at 118 random points on the bridge; 117 showed severe corrosion. Due to this weakness and the corrosion rate in Daman’s highly saline environment, the intensity of the stress on the bridge’s corroded locations increased, “which further weakened the structure and became the cause of failure”.

There were also human failings from beginning to end. The PWD’s officials admitted that they had “no technical expertise or experience in bridge technology”. IRC circulars on bridge maintenance, which made occasional additions to its codes, went unread. Necessary visual inspections of the bridge were hampered by a lack of viewing platforms that would allow engineers to take a close look at the structure. The work of inspecting, maintaining, and repairing the bridge was left to unqualified local labourers and their supervisors.

The IRC’s codes, created to bring uniformity to civil engineering practices across the country, read like ‘For Dummies’ guides; all an engineer needs to do is follow the written instructions. For bridge maintenance, the codes suggest several kinds of inspections, including going underwater to check the bridge’s foundations, and non-destructive tests such as assessing bridge loads. But an assistant engineer in Daman said that all bridge inspections during his time there were only visual.

Parts of the inquiry report read like a bridge’s autopsy. Kochar noted that Freyssinet, a company with “no past experience of steel bridge repairs,” was contracted to rehabilitate the bridge in 2001. He found that drains on the bridge’s deck had been sealed. A PWD engineer testified that the steel part of the bridge had not been painted between 1993 and 2001. Some steel components were so heavily corroded that they had lost three-fourths of their thickness.

“I had not personally inspected the bridge at any time,” DK Vaghela, who had been the superintending engineer at the local PWD, said. “I had not carried out any inspection work during the repairs and rehabilitation of the bridge from 1998 to 2001.” Vaghela claimed to have read the IRC code on bridge maintenance, but only after his retirement, and not while the bridge was his to maintain. Vaghela could not say if the bridge’s vitals were being monitored: “They [his subordinates] used to tell me that they have done the work and I believed them. There is however no record to show what inspection and maintenance work was done by them.” In 2001, during the rehabilitation, he visited the bridge. “I had generally walked over the bridge and had seen from both abutments that the work which was done was satisfactory,” he said.

Kochar found all of this preposterous. “Even the expenses incurred appear to be suspicious as no supporting documents and records … are brought on record,” the justice wrote, looking at accounts related to the bridge. In the margins of his personal copies of witness testimonies, which I obtained through the Right to Information Act, he frequently wrote “absurd” beside underlined passages. He was disturbed by the local administration’s belief that the IRC codes, created to ensure a common standard of knowledge among engineers, were simply suggestions. He inferred from the PWD engineers’ testimony that they had “exercised their discretion”. Kochar was livid: “those engineers who admittedly do not know even the elements of bridge engineering or technology … cannot have the audacity to say that they are not bound by the prescribed guidelines on the very subject of which they are admittedly ignorant. And how can anyone exercise his discretion if he does not know the subject in question itself? Discretion presumes possession of at least basic average acquaintance with the subject.” (After an informal conversation about the incident, Kochar declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Left to themselves, the PWD’s engineers made up their own rules about how things ought to be done. This dismayed Kochar. You couldn’t possibly have engineers operating on improvised guidelines when there were well-established ones available. It raised an unsettling question: were there other officials, in other parts of the country, also doing things their own way?

Anger bubbled through Kochar’s report. He believed the PWD’s officials were evasive. When the attorney for the department questioned Fadra’s recollection of the afternoon’s events during hearings, Kochar shushed him, according to Fadra. He disdained the department’s practices, and all but declared the PWD workers unfit for duty. They “chose to confine themselves in dark corners of [Daman] on a strange pretext that there was only one bridge in their territory and that there was no necessity for them to acquire any knowledge to maintain the bridge.” The PWD owned the bridge, he wrote, but had left it in the hands of contractors and consultants, “and finally to its fate.” He was particularly moved by the bridge’s young victims. “They were eager to fill their hungry bellies” as they ran out of school, he wrote. “Nothing was left for their parents, who awaited their children … with meals ready for their little dear ones.”

The inquiry hinged some of its technical conclusions on a report by V Kalyanaraman, a retired professor at IIT Chennai. He had reached Daman within four days of the collapse, and saw the bridge lying broken, submerged in the toxic water. “My first thought,” he recently told me, “was how could my profession do this to so many people?”

“IT’S A VERY VERY DIFFICULT THING. IT’S NOT A JOKE.”

THE CHIEF ENGINEER OF BRIDGES works in office 332, deep in the heart of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways on Parliament Street in New Delhi. Arun Pathak is about six feet tall, and he towers over the diminutive staff in the ministry’s pallid corridors.

Pathak, who served in 12 ministries before becoming chief engineer in 2012, is the man who signs off on any decision regarding the ministry’s bridges. He did not know how many bridges he was responsible for. “In total, most probably about 20,000-odd bridges are there,” he told me. “We don’t have the exact figure, but it’s approximately 20,000.” Nor did he know the condition of the bridges under his purview. “We are dependent on the state PWDs,” he said. “They used to send us data.” Asked if the information was current, he replied, “Their functioning is not up to the mark. If they are efficient, then we will get the data.” But it did not seem as if any effort had been made to encourage the collection of that data. I asked Pathak if there was any incentive for PWD engineers to send in bridge reports regularly, and he said, “The only incentive is that we give more funds to states where bridges are working properly and from where we are getting data.” Because he doesn’t have up-to-date, comprehensive information, Pathak doesn’t know how many bridges—or which ones—are on the verge of failure. No one does.

On top of the lack of data, the roads ministry has a shortage of qualified staff. On the day I visited Pathak’s office, a stack of new bridge proposals about 18 inches high lay on his desk. He pulled one bound proposal out from the pile and flipped it open to a page filled with calculations. “Just see this,” he said. “The amount of work that’s involved is surprising.” He said that two people under him helped him with the proposals. “Eight people are required. I am functioning with one superintending engineer and one assistant executive engineer. There’s a constraint of staff. Each and every drawing has to be seen. This has to be seen”—he flipped a page—“this has to be examined”—and then another. “It’s a very very difficult thing. It’s not a joke.”

“The person inspecting the bridge should be an expert. He should know what he has to see,” Alok Bhowmick, the managing director of B&S Engineering Consultants, told me. He provided an example: “You have seen bridge railings on expansion joints. Now, at the expansion joints, you see two posts. If the two posts are like this”—he imitated a misalignment with his hands—“it gives you an indication that one of the foundations has settled. How do you measure how much it has settled? If you know the span, you’ll know how much it has settled. Although this is common sense, you should know what to look at. It is not a job that can be done by any Tom, Dick and Harry just because he’s a civil engineer, just because he’s a structural engineer. If it’s a river bridge, he will not know whether there is a scour problem or not. How do you decipher the flood level? You have to look around, and where you see bushes, that’s the flood level. To know all this, you need to be a specialist.”

The Bridge Inspector’s Reference Manual, published by the IRC, was written not for specialists, but for “people whose knowledge of bridge engineering is not highly developed”. The manual’s authors recognised that bridge inspectors in India were not qualified engineers, and sought to create a guide that would allow inspectors to conduct routine inspections on common bridges. Within minutes of reading its instructions, I learned how to identify the corrosion of zinc paint (white spots appear on the surface), and how to tell if concrete was under chemical attack (the surface of concrete starts to feel soft and slippery, and develops small hollows). Being a bridge inspector doesn’t require knowing how to construct a bridge. It isn’t complex. It involves following a checklist written in simple English and recording signs of danger. The list, provided in the manual’s last pages, requires inspectors to tick boxes: “Steel corrosion – Problem: yes/no. How bad?: not so bad/bad/very bad. How much?: not much/some/a lot.” On occasion, if the ticked boxes point to serious problems, there’s space for an explanation.

In a maintenance structure riddled with vulnerabilities from rules to personnel, the most unexpected one exposed by the Daman inquiry was this: engineers charged with protecting the bridge didn’t even read manuals or IRC circulars published to help them maintain bridges. “I did not try to find out the bridge history or … the maintenance of the bridge,” SC Hiremath, the former superintending engineer, said. “I am also not aware of the bridge check list to be maintained for a bridge. I am not aware of the format of the inspection report of a bridge. I have not seen at any time any handbook relating to the maintenance of the bridge.” There’s no way to know whether these lax practices at Daman’s PWD were an anomaly or the norm—but that’s precisely the point: the very absence of this information should be forewarning enough.

To help fill in the missing data from non-existent manual bridge inspections, Pathak wants to implement a bridge management system. He said the ministry planned to engage a consultant to report back on the condition of its bridges. “A proposal”—cost unknown—“is already there for a bridge management system,” Pathak said. “The consultant will examine each and every bridge in the country, and will inventorise the bridges: when it was constructed, what its span is. It will be totally computerised.” (Pathak isn’t the only one with such plans; there are a bevy of new proposals for automated bridge management systems. Wakchaure, of the Indian Academy of Highway Engineers, has one, and the Central Road Research Institute is believed to be developing one, too.)

But attempts to implement automated systems to manage India’s bridges have been made before, and they all foundered upon the same problem: the issue wasn’t so much the bridges as the people who were supposed to take care of them. In 1996, as part of a National Highways project supported by a World Bank loan, the roads ministry commissioned a study for a bridge management system. The system—essentially a software database operated by technicians who had to be hired and trained—would assemble data on the condition of bridges, predict how bridges would deteriorate, plan maintenance and repairs, and predict the costs necessary to keep bridges functional.

The ministry asked O’Sullivan & Graham Ltd (OSGL), a British firm, to recommend software. When they arrived in India, OSGL’s John Cox and Stephen Matthews found that the regular maintenance that bridges required was not a priority for PWDs. When funds were released for maintenance, the money was inevitably for bridges in critical condition. What the ministry wanted was a crystal ball; the ideal software package had to divine how long its bridges would last if they were left unattended.

Given India’s varied climate conditions and geography, the consultants recommended a Canadian bridge management system called BRIDGIT. They fed BRIDGIT data on every bridge under the ministry’s purview. The only comprehensive data set, which included measurements and conditions for several thousand bridges, was then seven years old. BRIDGIT let them know that the data was untrustworthy. The software checked their inputs for integrity, and judged that “a large proportion of the bridge records were found to contain errors or omissions,” Cox and Matthews wrote. BRIDGIT, mighty as it was, could predict the future, but only if the PWDs’ engineers maintained accurate records first.

NK Sinha, who was the director general for roads in the ministry when OSGL recommended BRIDGIT, seemed surprised when I asked him about the system. He said that few people in the ministry knew about it. “That software would somehow, after some years, give us the expectant life of a bridge, and where it needed an intervention. That was the aim. But not initially. First we had to fill in the data. That was the trick. That is still the trick,” he said, smiling. “Supposing you inspect one bridge today, and put in its deficiencies and what actions you have taken, and you repeat the same thing next year—ultimately the software picks up that if such and such condition happens, the bridge is about to collapse. Or, if you take these measures, you can prolong its life.

“I had the software installed on one computer which was kept under the close watch of one chief engineer,” Sinha continued. “I told him he was in charge, and he got transferred, and—transfer transfer transfer—we don’t know where that computer is, and where the program is.”

Powerful software could only supplement a strong organisation, not fix a broken one; Cox and Matthews concluded that the software couldn’t resolve the weaknesses in Indian bridge maintenance. “It became clear at a very early stage in the project that the main issues were of an institutional nature,” they wrote. “Previous experience suggested that bridge management software would serve no useful purpose without an effective bridge management organisation with well defined responsibilities.” (When I contacted him in February, Matthews declined to be interviewed for this story, but he wrote to me in an email after I told him about the failure in Daman, “Gravity is an unforgiving task master, and unfortunately the skills of civil engineers in managing its effects are too often taken for granted.”)

Cox and Matthews argued that there was a shortage of qualified bridge inspectors. Bridge inspectors were expected to be “competent qualified engineers”, according to guidelines published by the IRC in 1996, but there was no specific statement of the necessary qualifications. Engineers, like other government employees, were frequently reassigned, and their duties were spread across vastly different specialisations. Bridge engineers were made “to work on public buildings or on highways”, Cox and Matthews wrote years later in a paper describing their assignment. Conversely, engineers who understood roads and sewers were assigned to the specialised task of inspecting and maintaining bridges.

“The IRC wanted bridge inspectors with diplomas and degrees,” Sinha told me. “I said, no, they should simply be school graduates who know math.” When I asked Pathak, the chief engineer of bridges, about BRIDGIT, he said he wasn’t aware of it. He was keener to discuss the merits of his proposed new system. “The PWDs will have to give the data twice a year,” he said. “They will have to do a visual inspection twice a year for five years.”

The likelihood of receiving this information is slim. “No department has data,” Bhowmick told me. “And even if they did, they wouldn’t give it to you, simply because they don’t have updated information. They aren’t keeping it the way it is supposed to be done.” When Bhowmick and I met in March, B&S, which is among the firms approved to perform inspections for private transporters on the ministry’s bridges, had dispatched a few of its employees to visually inspect, for a hydraulic trailer client, 40 bridges along an 800-kilometre-long stretch of highway. Assignments of this kind were growing increasingly common, he said.

A 2010 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on the government of Goa, which included an audit of that state’s PWD, suggests that the neglect displayed by the engineers in Daman may not have been unique. The CAG report noted the Goa PWD had a lack of maintenance records, and that “scrutiny of the records revealed that the [PWD] had not maintained history sheets of the assets to record the details of maintenance works carried out such as the dates of works carried out, the nature of works done, expenditure incurred etc.” The auditor general’s comment wasn’t very different from an observation Justice Kochar made during his inquiry. Kochar wrote that the Daman PWD had placed on record a “bunch of so-called correspondence to show bridge maintenance from 1983 to 2000. This bunch of letters merely show that all bearings/unishears etc. are greased and nut bolts are tightened, when the procedure as prescribed by various maintenance manuals show that maintenance is not restricted to greasing and tightening of nuts and bolts.”

And yet, as of now, our fate is in the hands of similar engineers. They may be unused to inspecting bridges, or may have little time to do so. Nor are they required by law to maintain bridges. Perhaps they don’t keep maintenance books, or, if they do, fill them with meaningless dummy text. We don’t know if senior engineers verify data collected about the structures by subordinates. And for now, at least, we have no way to find out about any of this.

 

“DON’T GO THAT WAY.”

EIGHT DAYS AFTER TAFSIR DIED, her first passport arrived. Fadra wanted to cancel it, but was told the process would be complicated. He held on to the booklet until it expired. The Daman police took five years after the bridge’s collapse to file a chargesheet naming the PWD’s engineers. During that time, the Daman Ganga bridge was rebuilt, and it failed once again. (There were no fatalities.) After that, the permanent bridge that had been promised for over 20 years finally began to take shape beside Fadra’s home.

A victims committee, formed after the bridge failure, had split into battling factions. The “Mohammedans” were excluded from news of the proceedings at the district sessions court, Fadra told me, and he accused well-placed members of the victims committee of having softened its stance in exchange for lucrative PWD contracts. Deepesh Tandel, the committee chief, agreed to speak with me, but when I reached Daman he did not answer my phone calls.

When I went there in early February, the criminal case had stalled. The judge hearing the matter at the sessions court had been transferred, and the new one was due to arrive by the end of the month. Rana, the former superintending engineer, had successfully petitioned the Bombay High Court to be discharged from the case. His success had encouraged two more former PWD engineers to attempt the same thing. “They said, just like Rana, there’s no case against us,” a source with knowledge of the legal proceedings told me. “Now, unless the high court hears their case, we won’t be able to hear the case in Daman.”

Kochar’s damning report had no bearing on the criminal case: Mario Lopes, the public prosecutor, tried to introduce it as evidence in the case, but the court stated it could not be admitted. Instead, the source said, “Whatever the police has gathered will be used as evidence.”

There is little optimism about the outcome of the case. The chargesheet filed by the police in 2008 was under a section of the Indian Penal Code that carries a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment. By the time it arrived in court, the statute of limitations had lapsed. The court returned the chargesheet and asked the cops to file a new one under a different section—one in which the engineers could face a possible prison term of ten years. The case is now dragging on, and there’s no end in sight.

In Daman, the old bridge, washed away so many times, has returned repainted, with more piers. This is the bridge’s sixth instantiation in fewer than 80 years. It is painted a dull light green, and its piers have already browned. Below the metal truss in the bridge’s middle is a pier that stops short of touching it.

I visited the bridge one evening as the light dimmed. It stands about 200 metres from the Nani Daman administration. To get there, I turned right on the upper end of the administration road, and walked past a bar called Bridge Corner, and the Hanuman temple near it. Ornate metal barricades with slim openings framed by barbed wire restricted access to the bridge, allowing only pedestrians to pass. A couple of men leaned on its railings while old songs played on a radio. Walkers owned the bridge now that vehicles could no longer make use of it. Still, the bridge creaked and vibrated with age. The street lamps were shattered, and their bulbs were gone. Paint peeled in clusters, exposing the material beneath. Rust marked the metal girders and the pathway. Closer to Moti Daman, the bridge’s tar had hardened in smooth lumps three inches high.

Losing my bearings in Moti Daman on another afternoon, I asked an official at the Pollution Control Board the nearest way to cross the river. “Take the big bridge,” she said, referring to the new one, which was finally opened in 2009.

“What about the pedestrian bridge?” I asked.

“Don’t go that way.”

“Why?”

She repeated her suggestion more firmly. I asked if there were superstitions about the bridge. “No, nothing like that,” she told me. “We have been advised not to use that bridge. I don’t know why.”

“DON’T BURY THEM IN THE MORNING”

 

IT WAS ALMOST LUNCHTIME when the school kids made a run for it. A blur of red-and-grey chequered uniforms, they were hoisted onto scooters and crammed into autos parked in the light rain outside Our Lady of Fatima Convent High School. The school, and the moss-tinged Portuguese fort it sat in, shone in the August drizzle. A wet road led down to a breach in the fort’s walls, beyond which the land swelled to a crest over a muddy river. On this side was Moti Daman, where the district’s administrative offices were sheltered within the fort’s stone ramparts. On the other side, the northern side, were Nani Daman’s liquor stores, beaches, and hotels. Together, these two halves formed the tranquil seaside town of Daman, held fast by the town’s only bridge, a workaday construction 20 years old.

Fakir Mohammad Fadra, a wiry cable-service operator with a purposeful walk, lived at the eastern end of the Nani Daman promenade. A thicket of mangroves obscured the view of the bridge from the front door of his house, but the Daman Ganga River, only feet away, he could see just fine—and on that day in the summer of 2003, the river looked swollen, as it often did when officials at the dam upstream released water. He couldn’t help keeping watch. Twice in his lifetime the river had burst its banks, forcing the town’s residents onto rooftops for airdropped supplies.

It was nearly 1.30 pm—time for his four children and four nieces to return from school to the home he shared with the families of his brother and sister. The Fadras were old faces in the small town of 36,000; Daman knew Fadra as ‘Baba’, and after all this time, it recognised him by no other name. (“Fakir who? Oh, Baba!”) Residents on both sides of the river subscribed to his cable television service. He had lately begun to feel that goons had overrun the trade, and had hired a hefty young man to help him run the service—the muscle to Fadra’s lean frame. The previous year, his father, Captain Nizamuddin Fadra, had died from prostate cancer after a long and rich life lived mostly on the sea. Towards the end, the captain told his wife to make sure she looked after their 14-year-old granddaughter Tafsir, one of Fadra’s daughters, whom they both adored.

“That day, she didn’t want to go to school,” Fadra told me when I visited his home. Tafsir smiled down from a studio photograph on a shelf in his sitting room. She loved school, and he couldn’t remember her missing a day. But that morning, Tafsir asked her parents if she could stay at home instead. The request was so unusual that they agreed. Then Tafsir changed her mind, as teenagers do, and left. She was excited, Fadra remembered: she had always wanted to go to London—Fadra had a brother in Gloucester—and they had just applied for her first passport. “Abba, when I go to London, I’ll send you money back,” she told him.

When he realised the time, the rickshaw driver who picked up the Fadra children each day put down his afternoon drink at a bar by the bridge, and hurried to Our Lady of Fatima. The kids were already walking home when he met them outside the school. “You’re always late. We’re not getting in,” they told the driver. So he turned the auto back toward Nani Daman, driving carefully over the bridge between students on foot, the narrow structure vibrating beneath them.

Constable Kinjalkumar Patel, on traffic signal duty, had stopped vehicles at Nani Daman so that people coming from the school’s direction could cross the bridge. The structure was built for a smaller Daman: at three-and-a-half metres, it wasn’t wide enough to let two small cars pass each other. As Patel directed traffic, the rickshaw Fadra had sent to fetch the kids went by, empty. A few more approached. One carried two kids and Mrs Pandya, one of the school’s language teachers. The other had 10 young passengers. Motorcycles and scooters zipped across the bridge’s puddled surface.

Bharat Patel, a young math teacher, carried test papers to grade at home as he crossed on foot. “He was a young gentleman,” Pandya said. “Very active, very good.” He would have been home sooner, but had forgotten the papers at Our Lady of Fatima, and had turned back to retrieve them. Pooja Pathak, a seventh-grader—and Pandya’s niece—was also walking across the bridge. “She liked my teaching. In the morning Pooja told me, ‘Maami, I want to come home and study [with you]’,” Pandya said. Then there were the eight Fadra cousins, with Fadra’s son, Aiyaz, up to mischief: he kicked up rainwater on the bridge at his pigtailed sisters and cousins. “Catch him and beat him!” they shouted, as his sisters Uzma and Tehzeeb ran madly behind him. Tafsir held back from chasing her brother to chat with her cousins Sumaiya, Afza, Sana and Farheen. It was afternoon now, and fishing boats bobbed in the whippy river below the long, crowded bridge.

JUST AFTER 1.30 PM, as Pandya and two children motored in a rickshaw past pier five—the support closest to Nani Daman—a strained joint over the pier snapped. Pandya heard a loud bang, and then the earth shifted. “Don’t ask me about it,” she told me. “I still hear it.”

The bridge’s tensive bonds were unravelling. Several tons of steel and asphalt yanked in opposite directions. The rickshaw Pandya was in lurched backward, its nose lifting toward the sky, and the two children beside her tumbled out onto the road. The rickshaw slammed back down. From inside, she reached out for the bridge railing, while the driver scrambled over the bridge’s wet surface to catch both children. Pandya didn’t know what was going on, but the section they were on had first broken at the pier, and almost immediately at the abutment, where the bridge met the land. She heard children in the water below, screaming for help. Holding on was hard enough, she told me, and she hadn’t dared turn around to look at them. Within minutes, fishermen approached her in their rocking boats, and told her to jump in, but she gripped the railing in white-knuckled terror.

Leena Fegade, a nine-year-old, had been crossing the bridge on foot beside her mother. They were behind Pandya’s rickshaw, and nearly across the river, when the bridge plunged beneath their feet. On her way down, Leena managed to catch hold of a rod pegged to the bridge. She looked about in panic, but her mother had disappeared. “The fishermen who were in the water … told me to leave the rod and jump in,” she later told the police. Leena let go and fell down into the water; the fishermen plucked her out and left her on the river’s north bank.

When the bridge’s first joint split, the strain led to more fractures. The span broke in four places, forming a W-shaped heap of metal. As they fell, Sharda, Leena’s mother, lost hold of her daughter’s hand. Children around her were drowning. She didn’t know where Leena was. She couldn’t move. Something had pinned her leg underwater. Whatever was holding her down was heavy, so the fishermen who came to rescue her had to pull her out of the river with a force that dislocated her leg, leaving her in agony. They took her to shore, where she found Leena among the other survivors.

Fadra was at home when he heard the noise and the human roar that followed. He ran past the narrow homes of fishermen that lined the promenade, towards the bridge. There he saw his children Aiyaz and Tehzeeb standing about a dozen metres from the abutment, behind a parked car. His daughter Uzma was nearby, but Fadra didn’t notice her. What happened? he remembered asking Tehzeeb. Where is Uzma and everyone else? “Tehzeeb saw the disaster, and she couldn’t say anything,” Fadra told me. “Aiyaz said that the bridge broke with them in the middle.”

Fadra didn’t wait. He dove into the river. Taut mooring ropes that held fishing boats in high tide tore skin from his arms. As he swam, he noticed Pandya—who had once been his teacher—standing on a tilted section of the broken bridge. She waved at him. A little further, he felt the sensation of an electrical current. Over time, the bridge had acquired dead load in the form of new power lines, telephone wires and water pipes that ran along its length and, as he passed by, Fadra thought that the severed wires were electrifying the water. “They turned off the electricity later,” he told me. He climbed out of the river at pier five, and onto a broken stretch of the bridge. From there he pressed forward to the school to look for his daughters and nieces, but couldn’t find them. He returned to the bridge and surveyed the damage, and now the terrible thought he had resisted all along bore down on him: his brother had lost all three daughters, and his sister, whose husband had died years earlier, had now lost her only child; two of his own children were gone. He was suddenly so tired.

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Rahul Bhatia is a reporter. He previously worked for Open magazine, Mint, ESPN Cricinfo and The Caravan, among other places, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

READER'S COMMENTS

5 thoughts on “The Emergency”

As usual an excellent long read from Caravan with extensive research on the topic. There is one ambiguity though , the cost for maintenance at Rs19,000 assumes equal weight-age for all the bridges which is a little off. Bigger bridges may require much more that 19k small ones probably lesser but 19k is still a measly amount of money to maintain any kind of bridge for a year. Kudos again on writing such a brilliant piece.

Outstanding article! Writeups like these take the Caravan close to New Yorker standards. This could compete fairly any day with Evan Osnos’ “Boss Rail” feature on the D301 bullet train crash in China.

The entire system interlocks to place us in this state, and this article does a brilliant job of exploring all those connections — this is truly in the league of seeing “a world in a grain of sand”.

brilliant stuff, engaging journalism coming right from the heartland of Indian Infrastructure

the writer surely would have taken great pains to come up with this story as it is clearly educating on so many levels on our country’s shallow state of infrastructure, making it a well informed read.

Kudos to the Caravan Magazine and to Mr. Rahul.

Let’s hope that the Government of the country along with the Public works body looking after Infrastructure Development in India, take it on themselves to transform the current state of hapless Infra in India, as that is clearly the fundamental of all developments to take place on the country. More like a fulcrum around which the economy revolves.

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