Gujarat HC allows to summon Ajanta as respondent in bridge collapse case

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The Gujarat High Court on Wednesday allowed an application seeking to summon Ajanta Manufacturing Private Limited (OREVA Group) as a respondent in a suo motu public interest litigation (PIL) on the Jhulto Pul collapse in Morbi on October 30 that killed 135 people.

However, the court rejected an application by 46 councillors of the Morbi municipality, seeking to join the proceedings in the case, on the ground that they apprehended that the state government may supersede the civic body.

On December 19, the councillors made a representation to Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel, requesting him to not supersede the municipality and thereby allow them to complete their five-year tenure as councillors.

On Wednesday, taking up the PIL which the HC had initiated suo motu in November, a division bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh Shastri allowed a civil application filed by Dilip Chavda through his advocate Utkarsh Dave.

In his application, Dilip, whose younger brother Ashok Chavda (38) and Ashok’s wife Bhavna Chavda (34), were among those who died in the tragedy, prayed that AMPL of OREVA group be summoned as a respondent in the PIL. After the couple’s death, their six-year-old daughter Harshi was orphaned. The tragedy has orphaned six other children as well.

The AMPL was the private party in charge of maintenance and operations of the suspension bridge, as per an agreement the Morbi municipality had signed with the private firm in March this year. However, the cable-stayed bridge, constructed in 1987, collapsed just four days after AMPL managing director Jaysukh Patel threw it open to visitors after repair and maintenance.

“…it is clear that the entire administration/repair/operation of the ill-fated bridge was within the control of M/s Ajanta… M/s Ajana did owe a duty of care to the public at large, which it failed to exhibit and which led to the unfortunate incident. Such acts of malfeasance on the part of M/s Ajanta will make it liable for the payment of exemplary damages… it is necessary that M/s Ajanta be joined as Respondent No.7 to this petition,” Dilip pleaded.

Admitting the application, the division bench ordered to serve a notice on AMPL. The state government, the state home department, commissioner of municipalities, Morbi municipality, Morbi district collector, and Gujarat State Human Rights Commission are the six other respondents in the PIL.

Police have arrested two managers of the AMPL as well as two ticket booking clerks and three security guards hired by the company to man the bridge after booking them under IPC sections 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) and 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide).

However, the HC rejected an application filed by 46 councillors of the BJP-ruled Morbi municipality to join the PIL proceedings as a party. Their advocate contended that the councillors will be “necessary and proper party”, as they apprehend that the state government will supersede the Morbi municipality after “your lordships have made an observation”.

The advocate cited orders passed by the bench on November 24 and December 12 and submitted that the councillors apprehend supersession of the civic body despite they not being signatory to the MoU between the municipality and AMPL.

However, the Chief Justice clarified that the bench has not passed any such order. “We have not ordered. Absolute misunderstanding by this applicant,” he said.

The bench held that the councillors are neither necessary nor proper party at the present stage of the proceedings and observed that the application has been filed to “thwart” the PIL. “…This is a suo motu proceeding initiated by this court after having taken cognisance of the bridge collapse resulting in 135 deaths and several persons being injured…,” it said.

“…there was default on the part of the municipality. It is in the teeth of this observation, the question was posed or raised as to why the state had not exercised power vested under Section 263 of the Act (Gujarat Municipalities Act, 1963)  to supersede or dissolve the municipality. Even before any decision is taken by the state, and merely on the apprehension that there is likelihood of such action being taken, the present application has been filed to thwart the present proceedings,” the bench added.

Dismissing the application, the bench clarified that the present PIL will not go into details of what transpires between the state government and the municipality and said, “As to what would be the lease between the state and the municipality as an offshoot of the tragedy would not be subject matter of this proceedings until and unless the cognisance of the same is taken note of by this court or the said issue being adjudicated by this court. In the absence thereof, the applicants cannot be held or construed to be being either necessary or proper parties to this proceedings.”

The matter has been posted to January 19 for further hearing.



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