Last month, a TV journalist put on the public domain some videos of a sting operation in which almost the entire top leadership of the Bengal ruling party, TMC had been caught accepting bribe in hundreds of thousands of rupees from a fictitious company. Clearly, they were doing it in the normal course of business, just as any businessman would accept an advance for a legal contract. The Number-2 in the party didn’t accept the bribe himself, but wanted it to be handed over to his pimp, who is – hold your breath – a senior police officer in charge of law and order in the most prosperous district of West Bengal.
However, there was an exception. On one leader’s face, we did see a shadow of guilt – Sougata Roy, MP and ex-prof of physics. Poor idiot – it seemed such a big bribe was for the first time in his hardly illustrious career. Confused, while pocketing Rs.500,000 in currency notes, he said, “ও বাবা, এত’ অনেক টাকা!” (Oh God! It’s a lot of money.)
On the other end of the spectrum was Bobby Hakim, the urban development minister and a close confidant of the plenipotentiary chief minister of West Bengal. He said, “I don’t deal in peanuts.”
Yeah, he’s a big fish. And he continued to brag before the hidden camera. Like any good don, he took care of his underlings: “What will be left for the kids if we dealt in small stuff?”
My wife and I were discussing what could happen if the ultimate authority in sanctioning large infrastructure projects in Bengal deals in “big stuff”. No wonder reputable civil contractors like L&T or Gammon India have stopped bidding for projects in West Bengal.
And as we talked, a flyover collapsed before our eyes on the TV screen. At one of the busiest junctions in Kolkata. In a moment, buried under the debris were dozens of men and women, auto-rickshaws, taxies, SUVs, … and hopes, aspirations, and future of many a family. …
It’s 2.30 in the afternoon, we have just turned on the TV. A tragedy unfolds before our eyes in real time. It is mind-numbing, physically sickening. As we sit in the comfort of our home, the TV shows bloody legs jutting out from under thousands of tonnes of rubble … a fortyish driver hopelessly trapped in his taxi crumpled like a sheet of useless paper. He opened his door and tried to escape, but managed to free only his head – groaning and looking at the world possibly for the last time with blank eyes. There was no anger in his face, just pain and helpless acceptance of fate. He seemed to be one of the thousands of Bihari taxi drivers in Kolkata. My mind drifted away to his family in Darbhanga or Madhubani. What if his mother, wife, and little kids are watching him at this moment? Couldn’t the TV channels show a little compassion and blur the image of his face?
The flyover has collapsed shortly before 1.00. The channels have already managed to grab a footage from a roadside CCTV camera which shows a span of the bridge collapse on moving traffic. They are showing it every five minutes. But there is still hardly any sign of disaster management except firemen who are on the job, but totally unprepared to handle a disaster of this magnitude. Local people are trying to disentangle bodies. A man splashes water on the head of the dying taxi driver from a plastic bottle and gives him some to drink. The chief minister has cancelled her election campaign and is helicoptering back to Kolkata.
3.00 PM: Over two hours has passed since the tragedy. Still, the rescue operations are hopelessly disorganised and inadequate. You can see the National Disaster Management Team in action – their orange jackets stand out. But there are only a few bubbles of orange in that sea of humanity. Fort William, the HQ of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army is less than five kilometres away – but there is no sign of Army jawans, who are most well-equipped to handle such calamities. Why? The Indian Army has never been accused of taking things lightly in emergencies. But in West Bengal today, the bureaucracy doesn’t dare pee without the CM’s consent. Possibly no one risk calling in the army in the CM’s absence.
3.00 PM: The Chief Minister arrives, but is hardly bothered about the shoddy rescue efforts or the absence of the army in the scene. Always paranoid with self-publicity, she grabs a mike and starts addressing TV cameras, even when people are dying before her eyes. Rather than checking where things stand, she says: “Nobody should play politics over this tragedy…. The contract was given in 2007 during the Left Front regime.” [That is, before we came to power.]
Then she goes on to add something bizarre: “All the drawings are with them [them who? The Left Front?] Although we asked for the designs a number of times, they haven’t given it to us.”
The CM is not particularly famous for her intelligence or education, but with incredible stupidity, she in fact indicts her own government. The construction of the flyover is supervised by Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authorities (KMDA), which has been under the above mentioned Bobby Hakim, who – you might recall – doesn’t deal in peanuts. If the CM is correct, it would mean the Government of WB allowed the flyover to be constructed for five long years, without even having the design, which ought to be the first point to begin supervision of any civil structure. Her minister and the KMDA authorities who supervised the construction without the drawings ought to be in jail.
3.10 PM: Neat columns of army men arrive, every one of them carrying a shovel or some other equipment. They rush in – they will save a number of people by pulling them out alive.
3.15 PM: The CM, the chief secretary of the state, the home secretary are sitting on plastic chairs by the roadside … no communication devices with them except cell phones. Sundry politicians including the mayor of Kolkata are hanging around. The top officials of the state are doing nothing except giving their boss company. The CM is giving instructions randomly: “Ei Mayor, you go to Medical College (Hospital), I will take care of things here.” Shouldn’t these worthies be in a control room now and coordinating activities of the different agencies engaged in rescue?
3.37 PM: Ordinary people (none of them in uniform) carry a lump of flesh and blood on a stretcher. The untrained hands cannot hold the stretcher – the body falls off. Dead or alive?
4.28 PM: The army men cut through a part of the debris – recovers more bodies.
4.30 PM: The CM and her team still sitting by the roadside. But a table covered with a white sheet and a laptop has appeared before them. In three and a half hours not even an emergency telephone number has been given for anxious relatives to enquire about lost people. Can a government be more incompetent?
8.00 PM (Approximately): There is still hope of finding people alive under the debris, but the army contingent is standing on one side of the road. Apparently, a police officer has just told the army men to keep off.
Many conjectures have been made, tonnes of newsprint have been used to analyse the reasons behind the collapse. Let’s not go into them. The reason for the collapse can be summed up in just one word: CORRUPTION. In most parts of West Bengal today, you cannot lay a brick without paying money to the ruling party and without buying materials from goons controlled by them.
On the day of the collapse, the civil contractor who had been constructing the particular span closed his office and vanished from the scene. He is the nephew of a senior TMC leader. He’s one of the “kids who deals in small stuff”?
In short, long before the flyover collapsed, governance had collapsed in West Bengal.
Kolkata / 14 April 2016