Bridge collapse: Why not consider dissolving Morbi municipality, HC asks Gujarat govt

The Gujarat High Court on Thursday asked the Gujarat government why it was not considering dissolving or superseding the Morbi municipality by exercising powers under the Gujarat Municipalities Act, as being the owner, it was the responsibility of the municipality to ensure safety of the suspension bridge that collapsed on October 30, killing 135 people, but it ignored early warnings on the critical condition of the bridge.

Pulling up the state government while hearing a suo motu public interest litigation (PIL) pertaining to the Morbi bridge collapse, a bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice AJ Shastri observed that the incident “prima facie cannot be brushed aside as not exhibiting the incompetency or default of the municipality”.

During the proceedings on Thursday, CJ Kumar orally asked Advocate General (AG) Kamal Trivedi, “Does not this magnitude of tragedy warrant the superseding, takeover of the municipality,” to which Trivedi responded, “…we are waiting for SIT report.”

The CJ remarked, “Then we may have to issue appropriate directions. Either you exercise (powers in) your domain or if you don’t do it, we will do it.”

Dictating the order, the CJ recorded, “Section 263 of the Gujarat Municipalites Act empowers the state government to dissolve or supersede municipality in case of incompetency, default or abuse of power. The catastrophe within the jurisdiction of Morbi municipality… prima facie cannot be brushed aside… it is for this precise reason that we had posed the question as to why the state has not exercised the power under S 263 of the Act to supersede or dissolve the municipality.”

“…we do hope and trust the state would not only expedite in securing the opinion from SIT but would also act upon it in the true letter and spirit of Section 263 of the Gujarat Municiaplities Act, 1963,” the CJ added.

The bench also expressed its dissatisfaction that the state had only suspended the chief officer (CO) of Morbi municipality SV Zala and had not issued a chargesheet, despite there appearing to be a “prima facie dereliction of duty”.

The court noted, “Advocate General has submitted that the disciplinary proceedings against SV Zala has been initiated by resolution dated 3.11.2022 and the chargesheet may be required to be issued to him which is dependent on the SIT report. However, we are not inclined to accept the said submission… the tragedy has taken the life of 135 persons at which point of time, the said SV Zala was the CO and responsible for the maintenance of the bridge… prima facie there seems to have been a dereliction of duty, which would call for initiation of disciplinary proceedings by issuing imputation of charges by the competent authority which we do hope and trust by next date of hearing would have received the attention of competent authority and… placed on record of this court.”

People cling on to the collapsed suspension bridge in Morbi. The structure on the Machchhu river was a century old. (Express Photo)

The bench also pulled up the Morbi municipality for denying that it had not transferred possession of the bridge to M/S Ajanta Manufacturing Pvt Ltd, observing, “It is no doubt true that the bridge… has not been sold. However, it cannot be gainsaid by the municipality that it (bridge) has not been leased or otherwise transferred the said bridge to M/s Ajanta… as the agreement/MoUs entered into by the collector and the chief officer Morbi hitherto would disclose that the operation, maintenance, collection security has been handed over to M/s Ajanta…”

When the state stressed that the bridge has been the property of the Morbi municipality, the court observed as to how a municipality property could have been handed over to Ajanta by the collector, instead of the Morbi municipality CO, saying it “requires to be answered both by the state as well as the Morbi municipality”.

The bench also did not take it kindly that the municipality ignored the “critical condition” of the bridge, as was flagged by Ajanta in December 2021. Asking the Morbi nagarpalika to place on record all files before the court, the bench said, “…way back on 29.12.2021, M/s Ajanta has notified that the suspension bridge is in critical condition. It has also been stated that accident can happen any time… In reply to the letter, the nagarpalika has sought for handing over the bridge by M/s Ajanta by communication dated 19.1.2022. The tenor of the said letter would also indicate that the same is concentrated more towards the price of the ticket rather than the condition of the bridge… the communications exchanged between Morbi and M/s Ajanta is for retention of the contract with M/s Ajanta, rather than bestowing the attention on the repair of the bridge which was said to be in a critical stage…”

Referring to the affidavit by Morbi municipality, the bench came down heavily on the “manner in which the entire situation was handled by the officials of the Morbi municipality and the company”.

Morbi municipality, represented by senior advocate Devang Vyas, also submitted before the court that the agreement terms did not permit Ajanta to outsource the repair work, while also submitting that the company has taken the defence that the agreement provided for no intervention by either the municipality or any of the state authorities.

The court has now sought that the state submit before the court on oath the date on which the report the SIT will be made available, so that the court can decide whether “to continue the said SIT and/or constitute any other inquiry as may be warranted…”.

The court has also sought that “the entire files pertaining to the Morbi bridge other than what has already been tendered by the Morbi municipality,” be placed on the court’s records.

Additionally the court noted that the compensation being provided to those seriously injured as well as the next of kin of those deceased is “abysmally low” as is the monthly allowance of Rs 3,000 that the state has decided to provide to the seven children orphaned, and suggested the state to revise the same, guided by SC judgement in Sarla Verma case.

“We hope and trust that by the next date of hearing the said compensation, which would not only be realistic and also the need of the hour is taken care of, by paying appropriate compensation… we call upon the state authorities to file a detailed affidavit disclosing these aspects… as a stopgap arrangement where the injury is of fracture or crush injury, the compensation can be evaluated by adopting the yardstick prescribed by Apex Court in Sarla Verma’s case where victims of road accidents are being paid compensation…This can be used as a thumb rule… which we hope and trust the state would immediately bestow its attention and ensure that such reasonable compensation is paid to the injured though it may not be commensurate to the disability they’ve suffered…,” the bench said.

With a long-term view, the court also suggested the state formulate a policy in regard to such compensation and asked officials to take “remedial measures” to prevent such untoward incidents. “The state shall place on record how many similar or such bridges are located in Gujarat, their existing condition  with all details thereof duly certified by jurisdictional engineers and place it before this court,” the bench said.

The court has kept the matter for further hearing on December 12.

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