A day after a foot overbridge maintained by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation collapsed just outside its headquarters in Mumbai killing six people and injuring 31, politicians have already begun to shift blame.
“Last night, we were not sure if this was our bridge or the Railways’,” said Sujata Sanap, Shiv Sena corporator from Ward 225-A, where the bridge is located. “Now that we know it is ours, we will make sure a criminal investigation is opened against the auditors who misled us. It is important that we have another audit. If the auditor has declared other bridges safe, how can we trust their assessment now?”
The structural audit report was submitted six months ago after a two-year-long exercise that saw an audit of all bridges and skywalks in Mumbai.
The police had filed a preliminary report about the collapse hours after the incident on Thursday evening. They had listed both Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Railway officials as culpable for the deaths. However, on Friday morning, the municipality accepted that the bridge was in their jurisdiction, after which the police removed the names of railway officials from their report.
“Why are you not questioning the executives who sanctioned this report,” asked Arvind Sawant, Shiv Sena Member of Parliament from Mumbai South. “If the audit has said that the bridge is in a good condition, what will we do? These details will come out in the enquiry ordered by the chief minister.”
Passing the buck
For now, however, there is still no clarity about who is to blame.
Sena politicians such as Sanap and Sawant have put the blame on auditors for the report.
Auditor Neeraj Desai told Mumbai Mirror that the corporation had painted the bridge and laid new tiles on it weeks before his audit in December 2016, which meant that his team was unable to inspect cracks. Municipality officials meanwhile have attempted to pass the buck within the department.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is ruling the state in alliance with the Shiv Sena, also attempted to evade responsibility for a representative’s controversial comments on a Times Now show on Thursday night.
“A large part of the blame, for want of a better word, was on the pedestrians who did not pay heed, knowing there was…,” said Sanju Verma, whose Twitter bio says she is the chief spokesperson of the party’s “intellectual cell”. She was cut off at this point by anchor Navika Kumar.
On Friday, the party attempted to distance itself from Verma’s comments after outrage on social media.
“Sanju Verma is not an authenticated BJP spokesperson,” said Madhav Bhandari, chief spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Maharashtra. “I am heading this cell in Maharashtra. She gave her personal opinion.”
When pushed for details, Bhandari admitted that Verma had been inducted on list of panellists for television news shows in Mumbai, but that she was not an official spokesperson. He added that the Mumbai cell of the party will take action against her.
Bhandari said bridge audits will not be a major issue for the BJP in the coming Lok Sabha elections. “This is an issue of the corporation so we will discuss this in our campaigns at the corporation level,” Bhandari said. “This is not related with the Lok Sabha elections.”
Calls for accountability
Meanwhile, Opposition party members have called for accountability to be fixed on the corporation.
“This is full negligence,” said Nawab Malik, spokesperson for the Nationalist Congress Party. “After the Bhopal tragedy, the head of the institution has been charged with Section 304 [culpable homicide] if people die in industrial accidents. If this can happen for the private sector, why not for the government? Until this is done, people will continue to die.”
Milind Deora, who will contest for the Congress in Mumbai South in the coming Lok Sabha elections, also demanded accountability. “Accountability has to be fixed, whether it is officers or the auditors,” said Deora. “If officials have appointed shoddy auditors, what is the value of an audit? And if the auditor says a bridge is unsafe and it is not repaired in record time, those officers too should be punished.”
Deora plans to focus local issues such as infrastructure in his coming campaign.
“I have always believed that good quality MPs have the power to influence decisions even at a local level,” Deora said. “But unless we change the structure of government and have a directly elected mayor, nobody is in charge or will be held responsible for Mumbai’s crumbling infrastructure.”
Even Sawant conceded the much-discussed problem with Mumbai’s administration, though he said that he would not build his Lok Sabha campaign over an “accident”.
“You should ask the government why there are so many authorities,” Sawant said. “This is the problem in Mumbai. You have the [Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority], [Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Limited], [Mumbai Port Trust], [Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority] and more. If there are so many authorities, where will the corporation have any power?”