In Retrospect

The collapse of civilisation

In today's fast-paced world, we may have developed ourselves technologically and economically – but the truth of development is revealed only when we reflect upon our country's dismal infrastructural potency. With a disturbing number of infrastructural disasters, 2018 has been a catastrophic year, further proving that digital growth is not the ultimate path for pursuing the dream of a developed country. In the past few years, the Indian population has witnessed a series of disasters including major bridge collapse incidents across several towns, cities and states.

The most recent horrific reminder came falling on Tuesday in Kolkata, when commuters, like any other day, were travelling across the 50-year-old Majerhat Bridge, unaware, that this tall structure would soon be the bedrock of a major disaster. Suddenly, a section of the bridge collapsed, trapping people and crushing vehicles beneath it. The incident has claimed three lives and injured over 20 people so far. According to sources, it has been suspected that more people remain under the debris and a team comprising several forces is trying to rescue those believed to be still trapped.

The Majerhat Bridge runs over the Majerhat Railway Station and connects the city centre to Behala and other southern suburbs. The incident took place at around 4.45 pm on September 4. The collapse had a natural impact on peripheral train scheduling and traffic movement which caused inconvenience to a large number of hapless commuters.

Since 2013, this has been the third bridge collapse in Kolkata. On March 4, 2013, a road bridge had collapsed in the Ultadanga area in the northern part of the city – but luckily there were no casualties. Earlier on March 2016, the most horrific of the three was reported from North Kolkata – the oldest part of the city. An under-construction flyover had given away and collapsed midway at Ganesh Talkies in the crowded Burrabazar area, the wholesale business hub of the city. Spreading immense panic and chaos, this unfortunate incident had immediately snuffed out 26 lives alongside injuring several others. It has been over two years since this incident occurred at the heart of Kolkata; the government though is yet to take a decision on dismantling the remnants of the flyover and, with passing time, an impending fear is growing among the locals that the remaining structure with its questionable reliability may collapse anytime soon.

This Friday again, an old bridge collapsed near Siliguri in north Bengal, injuring a truck driver. The middle of the bridge collapsed into the canal below as a truck was crossing it. The vehicle seemed irrevocably stuck in the broken portion of the bridge which connects Manganj and Phansidewa, 22 km away from Siliguri, to the city, a major town of north Bengal.

Varanasi bridge collapse

Kolkata or even West Bengal, is not alone, barely so. On May 16, 2018, another devastating incident occurred in Varanasi that left 18 people dead after an under-construction bridge crashed down upon unsuspecting passers-by and moving cars travelling merrily beneath it. The incident took place after a portion of an under-construction bridge, almost 25 ft in length, collapsed in the jam-packed Cantonment area of Varanasi. It has been said that the failure of casting cross beams for locking the griders led to the unfortunate collapse of the Railway Over Bridge (ROB).

Mumbai overbridge collapse

Monsoons transform Mumbai into a living, wading nightmare. With roads and their trenched potholes providing minute-by-minute challenges, Mumbaikars, especially office-goers, sustain heavily on the train service and its corresponding connected overbridges. On July 3, 2018, a part of the 40-year-old Gokhale overbridge collapsed at a railway station in Mumbai's suburban Andheri, bringing local train services to a halt and further injuring five more commuters caught at the wrong time in the wrong place.

Ahmedabad bridge collapse

In 2015, another case of unabashed negligence came to light after a portion of a 50-year-old railway overbridge collapsed in the Khokhra area of Ahmedabad. Two persons sustained injuries with train traffic remaining affected for long hours after the incident. Apart from that, this also resulted in the blockage of the route and disrupted the electric traction power supply.

Mumbai-Goa Highway collapse

On August 3, 2013, a bridge on the Mumbai-Goa highway collapsed late in the night as two state transport buses carrying 22 people were crossing the bridge. The passengers were reported missing after the vehicles were swept away in the swollen Savitri River flowing through the Konkan region (Raigad). Apart from that, it had also been suspected that there were few other vehicles which had also been swept away by the river. The bridge was incidentally quite old, constructed during the British era. While this old bridge was used for vehicular traffic from Goa to Mumbai, there was a new bridge that was used for traffic going from Mumbai to Goa. The new bridge was closed down immediately after the old bridge collapsed.

Causes of concern

According to a design researcher, poor quality of infrastructure is the first and foremost reason behind every bridge collapse. Other than that, it depends on the structure and the design of the bridge. There could be many reasons including soil condition, location in a seismic zone, span, sudden load, quality of material, the way of construction, etc.

Apart from the many incidents of bridge failure, that we have already witnessed, there are overbridges in states along with the national capital which continue to exist in a rather poor condition, as if waiting for a mishap to unfold. Rather interestingly, these bridges are being used in full swing as thousands of commuters travel every day through those poorly maintained structures across Delhi. A lack of inspection and maintenance is being witnessed across the country for which the citizens ultimately have to pay a heavy price. Flyovers and overbridges are left unrepaired for years, despite the fact that a large number of commuters travel regularly through these seemingly reliable concrete structures. Places like Lajpat Nagar and Pragati Maidan are witnessing severe inadequacy where thousands of commuters travel daily through heavy traffic.

Why do bridges fall?

Natural hazards like earthquakes, floods, winds, landslides and storms are among the root causes of bridge failures and these hazards are unavoidable.

In addition to natural factors, man-made factors, including imperfect design and construction method, collision, vehicle overloading, fire, lack of inspection and maintenance, among others, may also result in bridge failures.

Bridges usually collapse due to the usage of poor quality materials and imperfect design. Choosing appropriate material in tandem with the location and environmental factors plays an important role.

Apart from inappropriate designing, lack of inspection and maintenance also result in bridges collapsing. Usually, bridges are designed and constructed to serve for a long period but proper maintenance and timely inspection is necessary to ensure its longevity.

Overloading is another factor which may lead to a collapse. An incorrect assumption of loading can cost several losses of lives, especially truck overloading which causes fatigue problems and reduces the lifespan of bridges.

Heavy road traffic on a regular basis is the other reason behind bridge disasters as it overloads the bridge and reduces the strength of the structure.

When asked about why India is witnessing disasters so often, Prakash Sarma* a civil engineer of L&T, said, "using inferior quality of materials, the lack of periodic inspection and maintenance are the major factors. However, the reason behind every infrastructural mishap is usually distinct and there is a lesser possibility of there being a common reason across different incidents. Apart from that, skilled manpower should be deployed for construction and peripheral construction should be avoided as a safety measure."

Attempting to save money is one of the root causes of poor quality of roads and bridges in India. The quality of the materials used is so shamelessly sub-standard that roads need to be rebuilt after every monsoon. In some places, the repair work is further being avoided, which later paves the way for a national disaster. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, the governments, irrespective of colour, ought to take cognizance of the urgency of the situation and adopt the necessary steps that would ensure, first, a safer India.

*Name changed on request of anonymity

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