Contractors blamed for collapse

Four days after a 145-year-old bridge collapsed in the Gujarat town of Morbi on Sunday evening and killed 135 people, the owners of the company blamed for poor renovation work remained missing.

Two managers of the Oreva Group and two sub-contractors who had repaired the bridge are in police custody and will be detained till tomorrow. Five other arrested men, including security guards and ticket booking clerks, are in judicial custody.

However, Oreva's managing director Jaysukhbhai Patel, who had publicly claimed that the renovated bridge will hold up for at least 10 years, has not been seen since the tragedy, locals told NDTV.

The Oreva company's farmhouse in Ahmedabad is locked and abandoned, with not even a security guard in sight.

Mr Patel was last seen, along with his family, at the reopening of the bridge on Oct 26. He had signed the contract with the Morbi municipal corporation.

Watchmaker company Oreva bagged a 15-year deal to maintain the bridge in March and reopened it seven months later - before schedule. The Morbi municipal body allegedly awarded the contract to Oreva without a bidding process.

On Tuesday, prosecutors blamed Oreva for the tragedy: Contractors installed heavier flooring during renovation work on the bridge but did not replace a rusty main cable.

Police believe the structure snapped due to excess weight when it was crowded with visitors on Sunday, plunging at least 135 people to their deaths in the murky Machchhu river below.

"Oreva hired contractors who were not qualified enough," public prosecutor Harshendu Panchal said after a remand hearing on Tuesday.

"The main cable of the bridge was not changed during renovation.

"The police also believe that the weight of the bridge increased due to the four-layer aluminium flooring done by the contractors, which may have resulted in the bridge collapse."

The 233m structure, a major tourist attraction in the area, was reopened on Oct 26 after nearly seven months of renovations that are said to have cost Rs20 million ($342,056).

Authorities in Gujarat said proper safety certificates were not obtained before visitors were allowed to return. At least 47 of the victims were children.

Oreva was awarded a 15-year contract by local authorities to operate and maintain the bridge but investigations have since found that it had no previous experience on such projects.

Oreva allegedly outsourced the work to a little-known contractor.

The contractors who carried out the bridge repairs were not qualified for such work, the prosecution told a court on Tuesday. "Despite that, these contractors were given repair work of the bridge in 2007 and then in 2022," the prosecutor said.

However, Oreva group manager Deepak Parekh reportedly told the court: "It was the will of God that such an unfortunate incident happened."

Even in a country where infrastructure is often dilapidated, the bridge disaster is one of the worst in decades and has triggered widespread condemnation and demands for accountability

A district lawyer's body has refused to represent any of the accused, in a reflection of rising public anger.

The survivors of the tragedy and the opposition have questioned why the police first information report doesn't name either the top bosses of Oreva or the civic officials who signed the contract despite glaring gaps.

They have also accused the state government of sparing the main accused and making scapegoats out of security guards, ticket sellers and low-level employees of Oreva.

The police said the company failed to carry out a quality check before opening the bridge to the public on Oct 26 - the day the Gujarati New Year was celebrated - displaying severe negligence.

"The incident happened due to lack of crowd regulation and management," senior police officer Ashok Kumar Yadav, who is leading a government investigation into the incident, told Reuters. Municipal official Sandeepsinh Zala said Oreva had not informed local authorities about reopening the bridge.

The Indian Express quoted an Oreva spokesman on Sunday as saying: "The bridge collapsed as too many people in the mid-section of the bridge were trying to sway it from one side to the other."

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered an extensive inquiry into the bridge collapse and aid to affected families after visiting the site in his home state on Tuesday.

The accident comes just weeks ahead of elections in Gujarat. Mr Modi has been on the campaign trail, touting the state and country's manufacturing and infrastructure development push

Reuters, AFP

"The main cable of the bridge was not changed during renovation. The police also believe that the weight of the bridge increased due to the four-layer aluminium flooring done by the contractors, which may have resulted in the bridge collapse."

- Public prosecutor Harshendu Panchal

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