High Court says Morbi civic body “acting smart” after authorities fail to show up at hearing

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Collapse of the suspension bridge, over a century old, on October 30 killed over 130 people. (File)

Ahmedabad:

The Gujarat High Court today sought direct answers and slammed the manner in which the contract was awarded for renovation of the bridge in Morbi that collapsed on October 30 killing over 130 people.

“The largesse of the state seems to have been granted without there being any tender floated in this regard,” its order noted.

“Why was the tender for the repair work of a public bridge not floated? Why weren’t bids invited?” the Chief Justice Aravind Kumar said to the Chief Secretary, the state’s top bureaucrat, at the opening hearing of the case this afternoon. The court will continue to hear the case on Wednesday.

The Morbi municipality had given the 15-year contract to Oreva Group, which is best known for the Ajanta brand of wall clocks.

“The municipality, which is a government body, has defaulted, which ultimately killed 135 people,” the court today said as a preliminary observation, and asked if the Gujarat Municipalities Act, 1963, was complied with. 

“How was an agreement for such an important work completed in just one and a half pages?” the Chief Justice said. “Was the largesse of the state given to Ajanta company without any tender being floated?” the court further observed.

It pointedly asked for the basis on which the bridge was being operated by the company after June 2017 “even when [the contract signed in 2008] was not renewed after 2017”.

The court had taken note of the tragedy on its own and sought replies from at least six departments. Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh J Shastri are hearing the matter.

So far, only some staff of the contracted company have been arrested, while the top management, which signed the Rs 7-crore pact, has not faced action, nor have any officers been held accountable for the 150-year-old bridge having been reopened ahead of the renovation schedule.

The court also asked for files of the contract from the first day to be submitted in a sealed envelope.

The government has submitted that it worked at “lightning speed” and saved many lives. “Nine people have been arrested, and if anybody else is found to be guilty, we’ll definitely book them,” a government lawyer said.

In the order today, the court directed the Principal District Judge of Morbi to appoint a bailiff to a notice to the civic body. It noted that, though the state has filed an affidavit, some clarifications are needed on the renovation contract.

“The list of chronological events would indicate that MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) was signed on June 16, 2008, between Collector and the contractor,” it noted. “This was to operate, maintain, manage and collect rent in respect of the suspension bridge. The said period expired on June 15, 2017. Thus the moot question would be: Under this MoU, who had been fixed the responsibility to certify the fitness of bridge… After the term was over in 2017, what steps were taken by Morbi civic body and the Collector thereafter to float a tender?” the court said.

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