An Aggrieved Bihari On Crumbling Bridges In Bihar

Abhishek Kumar

Jul 05, 2024, 12:39 PM | Updated Jul 08, 2024, 11:00 AM IST

Viral videos tell the story of Bihar's weak infrastructure.
Viral videos tell the story of Bihar's weak infrastructure.
  • Collapsing bridges highlight the severe infrastructure failures in Bihar, as devastating floods reveal systemic weaknesses.
  • On 3 July, two more bridges collapsed in Siwan district of Bihar, taking the total to three in 10 days within Siwan itself. Both bridges date back to 1998 and 2004 respectively.

    Considering minimal inflationary impact on costs accrued in 1998 and 2004, Rs 0.5 crore (at least) was washed away. Add to that, the loss or slowness of business transactions caused simply because villages connected through these bridges will now have to take longer routes.

    On the same day, another video of a collapsing bridge went viral. The video is said to be shot on 1 July in Aurai, Muzaffarpur — more than 180 km away from Siwan.

    A video went viral of another bridge collapsing due to the increase in water level of the Bagmati river. The bridge was made by tying thousands of bamboo sticks together — known as chuchri bridge in local language. These bridges are made entirely by villagers with the help of funds collected through donations.

    After the collapse, people will need to travel 30 kilometres for block headquarters while district headquarters is now 35 kilometres away.

    As I am writing, another 15-year-old bridge connecting Saran to Siwan has collapsed. In Saran alone, this is the third collapse in the last 24 hours (at the time of writing).

    This is the 17th such reported collapse from the state in last 15 days — a remarkably high figure compared to 2023 standards. In 2023, when reports of collapse would surface, it would read something like, “9th such collapse in three years”.

    Does it indicate a radical decline of standards within a year?

    Contrary to instinctive answer, the standards have remained the same. We are seeing more such reports because people have become more vigilant about it. For an average Bihari, government’s inaction over instances of crumbling small and chuchri bridges is so normal that they do not even normally contact administration about it.

    Even when one sees people (mainly kids) recording those disasters, it is with the purpose of playing it on social media with some background music depicting Bihar in bad light (आइए ना हमरा बिहार में song from Khakee: The Bihar Chapter).

    World woke up to these tragedies when one of these videos went viral across the globe in June 2023, when an under construction four lane bridge over river Ganga in Bhagalpur district disintegrated like a pack of cards. Turns out, in 2022, 36 segments of the same bridge had collapsed, but not much was reported in national media about it.

    The bridge was being built with a hefty cost of Rs 1,710 crore. Though the company named SP Singla Constructions Private Limited said that it would rebuild it at its own cost, authorities’ silence on taking punitive action was suspicious.

    Meanwhile, Bhagalpur bridge was not the only smelly big fish. In the next 11 months, reports of big bridges collapsing became way too common. The harakiri was not limited to one particular area. Instead, Sultanganj, Saran, Supaul, Begusarai, Darbhanga, Bihta, Purnia, Nalanda, Saharsa, Araria — places having different political and social cultures — all had to suffer.

    The extent of damage — both direct and indirect, run into thousands of crores.

    Reasons for collapse in all of these cases vary — sometimes comical and sometimes unbelievable. For instance, when Bhagalpur bridge fell apart, one of the reasons put forward was increased wind speed.

    Yes, that is the absurdity up to which officers working in the project went. Similarly, flood is being blamed for this year’s collapses.

    Here is what these excuses sound to rational ears.

    The people of Bihar accept that the administration is not aware of the fact that more than 73 per cent of Bihar’s total geographical area is flood-prone. They should accept that engineers hired by these construction companies do not take wind speed and possible increase in water level in their SWOT analysis.

    If aforementioned corollaries are true, it also means that there is something wrong in the selection of companies for these projects.

    The only sensible response which came after Bhagalpur disaster was by Union minister Nitin Gadkari, who has no qualms in alleging the use of substandard material in construction. Apart from substandard materials, designing of these bridges is also blameworthy. Both these technical factors boil down to administrative issues of corruption-laden tender allotment.

    New entrepreneurs trying to get tenders have to face the wrath of organised corruption in the departments. Tenders are allotted to already established companies or their franchises. Most of these companies have their ‘cut’ fixed at the homes of members of parliament, members of legislative assemblies and engineers.

    On multiple occasions, the vigilance department in the state has tried to nab the culprits. All they could do was get hold of crores of rupees from corrupt engineers, but failed to capture any big fish.

    Corruptions in new bridges aside, there is a sad layer of complacency around the way old bridges are being taken care of. No one is there to inspect their status and see if any of the portions need new materials or maintenance. Resultantly, bridges as new as one to 40 years are collapsing.

    Culturally, there is an extremely sad message that is getting passed to an average Bihari. A common sense in Bihar is that Britishers were much better in infrastructural development as bridges built by them are working fine even after a century, while those built by the government chosen by our own are collapsing.

    In Saran, a British era bridge also collapsed. The blame again goes to the state government for its failure to maintain it. Let us see when government moves beyond show cause notices and transfers.

    Meanwhile, Jitan Ram Manjhi has alleged a conspiracy behind these collapses. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar held a review meeting and ordered survey of old bridges. His party's working president Sanjay Jha wants Centre's help in interlinking of rivers.

    In Judiciary, advocate Brijesh Singh has moved a public interest litigation in Supreme Court on collapse of these bridges. The pendulum is slowly moving. Let us see when heads start to roll.

    Abhishek is Staff Writer at Swarajya.

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