Since October 29, when at least 155 people died in a crowd crush in Seoul, thousands of South Koreans have participated in the seven vigils held to protest the government negligence that led to the tragedy.

Many carried white chrysanthemums and candles. News reports said the crowds waved signs addressed to President Yoon Suk-yeol that read: “Stepping down is an expression of condolence.”

There is national grief and anger. South Koreans, especially the young, are angry and blame the government for the tragedy. The South Korean government, on its party, appears to have been pained by the incident. It has not yet resorted to blaming the tragedy on the irresponsibility of party-goers.

The day after the tragedy in South Korea, a suspension bridge over a river in Gujarat’s Morbi collapsed, killing more than 140 people and leaving many others injured. But there has been no sign of collective grief, never mind anger. There have been no white chrysanthemums.

Where is the grief, anger?

In India, candelight vigils are now treated with derision, as are demands for the government to take responsibility. “No politics over tragedy”: this is how we claim to demonstrate our moral superiority, though it is actually a sign of indifference towards our fellow citizens.

It seems that Indians have accepted the Morbi tragedy as a divine action over which humans have no control – like an earthquake or a storm.

This language needs to be fixed. Every time this incident is spoken of or written about, it should not be called the “Morbi disaster” but the “Morbi mass murder”. Isn’t it an exaggeration to call the tragedy a murder? According to some, there were more people on the bridge than its capacity could bear. The bridge could not hold their weight and gave away.

Criminal negligence

But the bridge was a disaster waiting to happen – if not that day, then some other. It did not collapse because it was overcrowded but because instead of being repaired it was merely painted over.

The collapse of the bridge, in fact, could have been foretold. After all, the repair work was handed over to to a company that had no experience of building or maintaining a bridge: the watch-making company Oreva Group. Besides, this was a 100-year-old swinging bridge whose maintenance and renovation requires expertise.

The procedure to award such work is laid down in the official rule books. Tenders are invited, stating the qualifications required of the candidates. Those who do not have the required qualifications, expertise or experience are not selected, even if they offer a lower price for the work. Tenders are scrutinised at two levels and the financial aspect is decided only after the technical clearance.

Preliminary investigations by the police have found that Oreva Group was awarded the contract to repair the bridge without following due process. This decision was taken by the municipality of Morbi, which means civic officials are also accountable. The company owner cannot evade responsibility either.

News reports have said that of the Rs 2 crore budget for repair work, only Rs 12 lakh was spent.

Rescue personnel conduct search operations after a bridge collapsed in Morbi on October 30. Credit: AFP.

The company was supposed to maintain the bridge, and had, in a way, been handed ownership of this structure. Pedestrians could use the bridge only after buying a ticket. How is it, then, that the number of tickets sold exceeded the capacity of the bridge? Does the blame for this accrue only to the employees manning the ticket counter or was this being done without the knowledge of the owner of the company?

Why have the police not even named the owner of Oreva Group as an accused in the complaint? Recall when the owners of Delhi’s Uphaar Cinema, Sushil and Gopal Ansal, were convicted after a long legal struggle following the devastating fire that killed 59 during a movie screening in 1997.

The chief officer of the Morbi municipality has been suspended. The municipality has been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party for 30 years but so far, public representatives have ducked responsibility for the deaths, claiming that the bridge had actually been closed for repairs.

It seems that the bridge was opened to the public without the knowledge or permission of public representatives and officials. Is this ignorance not a crime? Can the municipality or government display such criminal indifference to the basic task of protecting the lives of their citizens? The Morbi disaster is not a coincidence but was facilitated at several levels – political and administrative.

But there is no evidence of any anger in Gujarati society about their elected representatives treating their lives so callously. Citizens do not seem to want to trouble their political rulers. From the nonchalant attitude of the government and officials, it is clear that they have no fear of anger from the public either. Otherwise, in the midst of this terrible human tragedy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not have addressed several public events on the very day that bodies were being pulled out of the river in Morbi.

Of course, many will object to the prime minister being invoked in connection witth the bridge disaster. But if Prime Minister Narenda Modi tells citizens that when they vote they should remember only his face and not that of the candidate, he cannot evade responsibility.

Despite this, the prime minister is confident of the loyalty of the state’s residents. “This is the Gujarat we have made,” he announced proudly on November 7, kicking off the campaign for the state assembly elections.

Media’s role

In modern societies, mass media plays an important role in holding power to account. But many television news channels blamed citizens, alleging that pedestrians on the bridge caused it to collapse by kicking and shaking it violently.

But finally, we must ask ourselves how the owners of Oreva Group, the public representatives of the municipality, the state government and the BJP have managed to evade responsibility for this tragedy. Are they convinced that the citizens of Gujarat and India have lost the desire to demand the accountability they are owned? Have we turned from an engaged public into mere spectators?

The Morbi bridge has become a metaphor of Indian democracy. Who will be held responsible when democracy itself collapses?

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi in Delhi University.