Narendra Parmar avoided taking the motorable bridge over the Machchhu river for almost a year since the Jhulto Pul collapse so that he did not have to see the skeletons of the broken suspension bridge that took the life of his 10-year-old daughter Dhwani.
“I went only recently because our lawyer wanted to see the site of the accident,” says Parmar, a member of the Morbi Victims Tragedy Association.
Parmar, who also has an eight-year-old son, is a government school principal in Morbi. A few months after the death of his daughter, he had decided to call all the families of the deceased from the state government’s compiled list of victims to convince them to be part of an association that can unitedly be a stakeholder in the case — be it for pursuing authorities for compensation or the ongoing trial. The association got registered in June.
In July, it moved the Morbi district court seeking that IPC Section 302 (murder) be added against all the 10 accused, including Oreva Group MD Jaysukh Patel. The demand was primarily on the ground that Oreva Group, which constructed the Jhulto Pul and was to maintain it, was aware that the bridge was in a precarious condition. In fact, the company had, in December 2021, expressed its apprehension of an impending accident. This, the association submitted, makes the accused liable to be tried for murder. The application is due to be heard on November 1.
In February, the Gujarat High Court directed Oreva Group to pay Rs 10 lakh each to the kin of 135 people who were killed and Rs 2 lakh each to the 56 injured after having clarified that the payment of compensation by the accused or his company would not absolve the company of any liabilities — directly or vicariously.
Soon after the accident last year, the Gujarat government had announced and disbursed Rs 4 lakh ex gratia for the deceased and another Rs 50,000 along with free treatment for those injured. The Centre had also announced an additional Rs 2 lakh for the deceased and Rs 50,000 for those injured. However, in December 2022, treating the accident as a special case, the state government had informed the HC that it had decided to pay an additional Rs 4 lakh ex gratia each to relatives of the deceased, Rs 1 lakh to the injured having less than 40 per cent disability, and Rs 2 lakh to those with more than 40 per cent disability.
The revision meant that the kin of the deceased were entitled to a total of Rs 10 lakh ex gratia and the injured to a compensation between Rs 2-3 lakh, depending on the degree of disability suffered, from the state and Central governments.
Additionally, the Morbi Ceramic Association, in collaboration with the incharge chief officer NK Muchhar had pledged an annual amount of Rs 16 lakh to provide for monthly rations to 36 families who are among the kin of the deceased. However, the kin of the victims unanimously emphasise that they have little use of the money now that their lives have been upended.
In August, the association had also moved the Supreme Court, opposing the bail granted by the HC to two accused ticket clerks — Madevbhai Solanki and Mansukhbhai Topiya. However, it was dismissed.
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On October 9, the five-member Special Investigation Team formed by the state government, in its report, pointed out severe technical lapses on part of Oreva Group. At the same time, it also highlighted administrative lapses by the municipality, including the Memorandum of Understanding between Oreva and the civic body which was signed without “proper authorisation of the general board”. However, no municipality member has been named an accused in the case. Sandipsinh Zala, the then chief officer of the municipality, was suspended soon after the accident.
The next of kin, however, emphasise the company’s liability. “Oreva says they took the bridge maintenance contract on goodwill and not looking for profit. If that was the case, why was he charging for tickets? If profit was not the aim, why did they allow over 3,000 tickets being sold that day?” asks Khimjibhai Makwana (40) and Vijiyaben (35) who lost their 19-year-old daughter Poonam.
Three framed photos of Poonamben, who was employed at a beauty parlour in Morbi, adorn the living room walls of the Makwana home. “She had a lot of aspirations and was our key breadwinner. That TV was bought by her, she bought her father a mobile, and would buy clothes for him. She wanted to start her own beauty parlour and always said she did not want to get married, although we were planning to get her married this year. Our whole life has been upended, everything lost,” Vijiyaben says.