Bridges: India

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1979, the earthfill Machchhu dam had broken

Nov 21, 2022: The Times of India

The biggest tragedy

The Machchhu dam tragedy was recorded as the worst dam burst in the Guiness Book of Records before China declassified the 1975 Banqiao dam collapse in 2005. The exact death toll is not accurately known for both the tragedies.

The government had then put the death toll in the 1,100-1,200 range in Morbi, but independent experts and observers estimated around 25,000 deaths in a span of 15-20 minutes on August 11, 1979. In China, the estimates of the death toll went up to 2.4 lakh.

This is what India Today magazine reported while quoting the then chief minister, Babubhai Patel, on the incident: “To date,” he [Patel] said, totting up figures as if it were a game of nine pins, “1,137 human bodies have been disposed, 2,919 animal corpses burnt, and the estimated damage caused by the havoc is about Rs 100 crore.”

When god was blamed

The magazine further wrote “the 69-year-old Congress (O) politician seemed distinctly annoyed when a newsman pressed for more details as to how the dam burst. Turning around irritably, he snapped: ‘I don’t know why everyone is interested in what has happened. Why aren’t you interested in what we’re doing now?’”

Answering the same question, the local administration had termed the dam failure an “act of god”, something that a 2012 book — No One Had A Tongue To Speak by researchers Tom Wooten and Utpal Sandesara, the son of a Machchhu disaster survivor — had debunked. They pointed to structural weakness of the dam and communication failures on part of the administration, leading to greater loss of life and livelihood.

The dam had burst under pressure from excessive rainfall on August 10 and 11. Within hours that afternoon, the Morbi town submerged under 20-30ft floodwater from the Machchhu river as the dam gave way.

Politics, the great survivor

The then prime minister, Indira Gandhi — CM Patel was from the rival Congress(O), following the 1969 split of the Indian National Congress — had visited Morbi on August 16, covering her nose with a handkerchief as the stench of rotten grains and corpses was strong in the air. This is what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had referred to when he held an election rally in Morbi ahead of the 2017 assembly election.

It was against this backdrop of tragedy and political pressure that Patel had shifted his cabinet to Morbi to ensure speedier relief and rehabilitation work. He was leading the Janata Party government in his second term as CM. His first Janata Morcha government had been toppled by the Congress during Emergency in 1976.

Patel established his office at Morbi’s Mani Mandir — known as the Taj Mahal of Saurashtra — from where he oversaw the relief work. Mani Mandir was the queen’s residence during the princely governance. It was converted into Willingdon Secretariat in 1936 during British rule, under which Morbi was a salute state. Patel governed Gujarat from Morbi for about six months before shifting his cabinet and office to Gandhinagar.

There is a memorial outside Mani Mandir. The survivors of the 1979 Morbi disaster gather every year here on August 11 to pay homage to those who lost their lives in the dam burst.

Disaster has a political price

Though Patel paid personal attention to relief and rehabilitation work in Morbi after the Machchhu river disaster, his Janata Party government was voted out in the next assembly election, held after a three-month President’s Rule in Gujarat in 1980. The Congress returned to power with 51% vote share and 78% seat share in Gujarat.

The Congress hopes for a return by bolstering and humanising its campaign against the “anti-people and insensitive” BJP government in the aftermath of another emotive Machchhu river disaster for which the local administration’s role is being questioned — for opening the suspension bridge without the requisite fitness certificate and allowing more people on the bridge than its capacity.

During the party’s Parivartan Sankalp Yatra, Congress leaders have targeted the BJP and PM Modi, with Lathi MLA Virji Thummar saying, “When a bridge collapsed in West Bengal, then ‘Didi-O-Didi’ could be heard. Today, when lives have been lost in Morbi, who is responsible for it? As per your own speeches, the PM is responsible and needs to resign and ask for forgiveness.”

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also hoping to gain from people’s pain and anger over the Morbi bridge incident even as the BJP strives to control the damage with Modi magic and by fielding ex-MLA Kanti Amrutiya, who dived into the river to save people on the fateful night, in the assembly election. Gujarat votes on December 1 and 5 for 182 assembly seats.



Bridge collapses in India, 2001-19;
Bridge collapses across the world, 1807-2021
From: Nimesh Khakhariya, Nov 1, 2022: The Times of India

See graphic:

Bridge collapses in India, 2001-19; Bridge collapses across the world, 1807-2021

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