Monday, November 14, marks two important milestones in the rapidly unfolding efforts to understand one of 21st-century India’s greatest catastrophes. The Supreme Court will hear a plea requesting a judicial investigation into the October 30 bridge collapse in Morbi in Gujarat that claimed more than 130 lives.

The Gujarat High Court has also set Monday as the deadline for state authorities to submit an initial report responding to its declaration of a judiciary-initiated inquiry on the matter. Both cases offer the fragile hope of moving towards some measure of justice for victims.

I have spent much of my life researching and writing about one of Morbi’s other disasters, the 1979 failure of the Machchhu Dam-II. In that case, flood victims never got justice. A comprehensive judicial inquiry into the disaster was stymied prematurely as a result of which false narratives of blame and causality persisted for decades.

One must hope that investigations into the collapse of the swinging bridge in Morbi will be permitted to continue until they are complete.

But that is not all. Even the most extensive inquiry will fall short if it limits itself to identifying individual culprits and technical deficiencies. To understand why so many senselessly lost their lives in the Machchhu River’s murky waters, there is a need to look beyond individual actions and structural inadequacies to appreciate the social and economic conditions that enable them. In particular, we must confront serious questions about the nature of the public-private partnership, a model with ever-increasing reach in India today.

The basic facts of the collapse are by now widely known. Morbi’s 19th-century swinging bridge was a beloved attraction for local residents and tourists alike. In March, the Morbi municipality granted a 15-year contract for repairs and operations to Oreva, a local manufacturing group focused primarily on clocks and electrical appliances. Oreva, in turn, subcontracted the renovation work to a company called Devprakash Solution. After a faster-than-expected renovation, the bridge reopened to much fanfare on the Gujarati new year.

Four days later, the bridge’s steel cables gave way under the weight of a crowd of visitors. At least 135 people plunged to their deaths and 170 more had to be rescued. In an instant, people lost loved ones, even entire families. News reports indicated that the number of people allowed onto the bridge greatly exceeded its capacity. A forensic investigation indicated structural weaknesses in the cables that kept the bridge aloft.

As the state took two Oreva Group managers, two repair managers and five security and sales personnel into custody, accusations flew around. Gujarat’s former deputy chief minister Nitin Patel shrugged off any state responsibility, noting that the local municipality had drawn up the agreement for renovating and maintaining the bridge.

The head of the municipal corporation, Sandeepsinh Zala, claimed that the Oreva Group had reopened the bridge without notifying authorities or obtaining a safety inspection. While deeming the tragedy an “act of God”, Oreva Group staff blamed the victims, maintaining that “the bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section… were trying to sway it from one way to the other”.

It will take months, if not years, to fully reckon with the culpability for such an immense loss of life. History shows something critical will be missed if the focus is on individual actions without seeking accountability for the systemic failures that underlie them.

The 1979 disaster

The harrowing images and stories of October 30 vividly echo Morbi’s first river disaster. On August 11, 1979, after ten days of unrelenting monsoon rain, the Machchhu Dam-II overtopped its earthen banks and collapsed. As Tom Wooten and I explained in the book No One Had a Tongue to Speak: The Untold Story of One of History’s Deadliest Floods, the dam’s failure unleashed a wall of water thirty feet high on Morbi. Devastation ripped through the lives of one lakh people living downstream. Thousands died within hours, cattle landed on power lines, and homes, shops and factories were reduced to rubble. Morbi turned into a graveyard.

The Gujarat government set up a judicial commission of inquiry to ascertain the causes of the disaster. The commission members worked tirelessly for over a year and were closing in on final conclusions when political pressure, largely from irrigation engineers, led the chief minister to disband the inquiry.

Thereafter, the government resolutely maintained that the disaster had been an “act of God” – an unforeseeable consequence of an unprecedented downpour. Through archival research and interviews with investigators decades later, we learned that the commission was moving towards a damning indictment of broader processes.

Far from a natural disaster (as the government insisted), or a matter of individual negligence in opening floodgates (as many angry survivors believed), it was a result of systemic deficiencies in mid-20th-century Gujarat’s irrigation management.

Limited oversight and transparency and the headlong rush to build infrastructure projects allowed government engineers to design and construct a dam based on deficient rainfall data and subpar hydrological calculations. A more cautious engineering process might have produced a dam that could withstand the 1979 monsoon (or at least delay failure long enough to permit warning), but the irrigation bureaucracy’s existing practices did not incentivise that.

Because of the state’s insufficient planning for backup channels to communicate about dam conditions, the failure of existing communication mechanisms amid the downpour meant that it became impossible to issue timely warnings and coordinate evacuations that might have saved thousands of lives.

These conclusions did not reach the public until we began our research in collaboration with local journalist Dilip Barasara in 2006. The only official report on the disaster, prepared after the commission of inquiry’s dissolution and promptly buried in inaccessible government archives, described the technical failings in arid, inscrutable terms.

For decades, flood survivors lived (and died) believing that their loved ones had perished because a few dam workers failed to open the floodgates in time. In reality, the dam had been discharging water at essentially its full capacity leading up to the collapse. The fatal flaws lay in the processes that led to inadequate determination of that capacity and inability to warn of that collapse.

The PPP model

The history of the Machchhu dam disaster is a reminder not to look for scapegoats, but for broader problems – those that remain invisible, just outside the frame of view, waiting for careful investigation and analysis to bring them to light.

In the case of the swinging bridge disaster, that problem may be the underlying dynamics of the public-private partnership, or PPP, model.

Under this model, public-sector and private-sector institutions enter into an agreement that grants the private entity the right to manage and profit from the delivery of public services. The private partner typically funds, builds, or runs a project of public interest, drawing income either from the government or from service users – that is, citizens.

Public-private partnerships, like the one between the Morbi municipality and Oreva Group, commercialise aspects of public life by externalising the management of public assets or services to private corporations.

Over the past few decades, this model has acquired an outsize and ever-increasing hold in Indian governance. In August 2012, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh relaxed prior requirements for land transfer and public-private partnership permissions. This paved the way for more such partnerships in the infrastructure sector.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also championed the PPP model. In Gujarat, hefty government concessions to private corporations (through both formal PPP contracts and general incentives or subsidies) have been an integral part of the governance model since Modi’s days as chief minister in the early 2000s. The state has offered sweet deals, often at the expense of taxpayers and poor citizens, to attract commercial investment.

Amid the National Democratic Alliance government’s post-2014 promotion of private enterprise and liberalised markets, PPPs have been proposed or been implemented to manage issues as critical as education and water, air travel and forestry.

In healthcare, central and state government institutions have offered ever-expanding roles to private entities. The public sector has withdrawn from the provision of health services for the most vulnerable Indians, entrusting them to profit-driven corporations. Touted as a mechanism for efficiency, the privatisation of life-saving care has raised serious concerns about equity, access, transparency, oversight, and integration.

Amid the proliferation of large-scale PPPs for managing large swathes of Indian life, the agreement between a regional city and a local manufacturer for the administration of a leisure site might easily go unnoticed, if not for the tragedy.

The bridge collapse has thrust the Morbi-Oreva PPP into the spotlight, underscoring the dangers of the logic that supports this partnership model. First, and most fundamentally, private partners in PPPs operate with interests different from those of the public that nominally grants them power. Their paramount objective is not public welfare, but profit. Services may be distorted, preparations skipped, usability ignored, safety disregarded – as long as the result is a higher margin, with a low likelihood of being caught.

Second, and relatedly, when human lives hang in the balance, private partners in PPPs do not often operate under the expectations of transparency that apply to public institutions. Matters of public risk and wellbeing are shrouded by corporate privilege and the governance of everyday life becomes less transparent to citizens – now merely “users”.

Third, private partners do not derive their legitimacy democratically. When a public-private partnership dissatisfies (or kills), private entities can disavow accountability or even walk away from projects entirely, leaving public institutions to undertake efforts to mitigate human harm, such as search and rescue operations).

Many questions remain

The collapse of the bridge in Morbi has raised many questions. How was the authority to repair and maintain a century-old structure granted to a corporation with little to no construction experience? What were the details of the process whereby that corporation immediately outsourced the renovation work to a subcontractor and did the process have government approval?

Was the renovation rushed to initiate revenues as quickly as possible? Were corners cut in maintenance work, such as greasing and cable repair? Why was the bridge thrown open without inspection or approval from local authorities? What protocols did the company implement to ensure the safety of visitors? What training did security personnel and ticket vendors receive in these protocols? How did the bridge become overloaded just before its collapse?

In answering these questions, it will be easy to identify individual villains. Those identified will, in turn, point to others or perhaps invoke an “act of God,” as Gujarat’s irrigation engineers did after the Machchhu dam disaster. But a broader perspective will place the tragedy’s immediate precipitants – individual actions, creaky material, the excess crowd, the sheer force of gravity – within a larger set of causes.

Those causes surely include the logic of PPPs, and the perverse motives and limited transparency they bring to activities of public interest. Any investigation into the this disaster must ask not only how many people were on the bridge, who let them on, and why the cables failed, but also how all these questions relate to the financial motives of a corporation that saw its income fall by half (and its profits by one quarter) over the last six years.

What corporate logic underlay the rapid renovation and ticket sales? What mechanisms of accountability (or lack, thereof) allowed a private company to risk the lives of citizens on a publicly owned attraction? Whose interests did the Morbi-Oreva PPP serve, and at what cost?

Public institutions, accountability

I do not naively believe that public institutions always succeed in serving citizens. The irrigation bureaucracy’s doings before and after the Machchhu dam disaster amply demonstrate how governments also fail in their obligations to public wellbeing and accountability.

Nonetheless, public institutions offer at least the prima facie promise of action in public interest. When they fail that promise, they must answer to citizens – through the electoral process and transparency mechanisms. If not for a blatantly unethical political intervention, the Machchhu commission of inquiry would have laid bare numerous public sector failings for all the world to see.

Even with the coverup, the disaster led to a government safety review of all of Gujarat’s major dams in the 1980s. In many PPP arrangements, by contrast, the private-sector entity can walk away from failures – profits banked, risks shifted, truths obscured, justice unfulfilled.

Monday’s judicial milestones mark the first steps in a long investigative journey. Individual actors and structural deficiencies will doubtless feature prominently. Considering the history (and false histories) of the Machchhu dam disaster, I hope we will also attend to underlying systemic issues, including the skewed incentives and obligations that can plague PPPs.

By looking beyond surface causes to the broader social problems within which they unfold, we can produce a more comprehensive account of the swinging bridge tragedy – one that truly ensures justice for its victims.

Utpal Sandesara is a physician and social researcher based in Los Angeles, California. His second book project focuses on the lived experience of sex-selective abortion among Gujarati families and medical providers.