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Infrastructure or infra-fracture: Saga of never ending accidents

It is high time that the Indian government wake up to this grim reality that is not only resulting in delay in project executions but has been causing loss of lives as well

In last week’s accident, at least one person was killed and five others were injured when a slab of the under-construction monorail project crashed in a slum area at Wadala East in Mumbai, on the night of 19 July 2012. This has, once again, brought into focus the appalling safety standards, or the lack of it. It would not be out of place to mention the recent fire disaster at Mantralaya, at the seat of power of the Maharashtra government, but no lesson seems to have been learnt.

 
From Independence till very recently India has been referred to as a third world country, or an under-developed country, and no surprises about that. It is only with the advent of economic liberalisation and globalisation that commenced in 1991, which gradually saw our country shift from a third world country to an ‘emerging’ economy. With more and more investors in different parts of the world, especially troubled developed economies, seeking to have slice of the Indian pie, India has been the toast of foreign investors.
 
A country aspiring to have speedy growth and development has to pay great attention to creating the requisite infrastructure. However, one of the factors that distinguish a developed country from an emerging economy is not just the class, quality and spread of infrastructure but the standards of safety. Hence, in her desire to speed up development, India has attempted to modernise by providing latest world-class infrastructure as far as transportation is concerned. As a result, massive projects were announced in different cities ranging from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Jaipur, and so on. Several Indian cities are currently in different stages of implementation of infrastructure projects to meet the transportation needs of the rapidly growing urban populace. While the Kolkata metro came up a long time ago, the Delhi Metro that came up in recent years was held as a model of infrastructural excellence, in terms of execution. Unfortunately, after the initial phase of the Delhi Metro, almost all the metro and monorail projects across the country, including Delhi, have experienced disasters from time to time.
 
It is not that India lacks technical skills or competence, but the issue seems to be much deeper. In developed countries safety is a matter of serious concern while in India, with our ‘chalta hai’ attitude and the habit of cutting corners, we have been courting disasters almost as frequently to never-ending saas bahu serials on Indian television. What also cannot be discounted is the role corruption plays that downgrade safety standards.
 
In the context of the construction industry, including implementation of giant projects like the metro and the monorail, unorganised labour plays a vital in actual execution of such projects. The construction sector employs around 10 million people, and it is reported that the rate of fatal accidents in the sector is four to five times that of the manufacturing sector. 
 
Many infrastructure-related disasters have taken place across India over the past few years, apart from the last week’s Mumbai mono rail disaster at Wadala. Let us examine a few. 
On 25 March 2012, six people died and 18 others were injured when an under-construction bridge over the Alaknanda River collapsed near Srinagar, in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district. Similarly, earlier on 29 October 2011, a footbridge spanning a river in northeast India collapsed and, according to the police nearly 30 people were feared drowned.
 
Another footbridge, which was under construction, over the Barapullah flyover leading to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main Commonwealth Games venue in Delhi, collapsed on the afternoon of 22 September 2010. It was reported that 27 labourers were injured in the incident and few of them lost their lives.
 
A vital bridge constructed in 2009 by the Border Roads Organization’s Deepak Project, near Basantpur in Shimla on the strategic all-weather road for connectivity to the India-Tibet border collapsed on 30 July 2010. The road was used for transporting apples from Shimla and Kinnaur districts. In another case, a bridge over the Chambal River collapsed on the Kota-Udaipur highway on Christmas day of 2009, in which four people were killed and several others were trapped underneath the bridge.
 
To think that such things happen only in far off places away from the maddening crowds— think again; a water pipeline bridge collapsed on a train passing underneath in a Mumbai suburb on 23 October 2009. Yes, it was a double whammy as the passengers in the train became victims with two killed and several other injured.
 
On 13 July 2009, the crash that sent shock waves across the country, and more particularly amongst the top bosses of the government, was when five workers and a site engineer were killed along with 15 injured when a massive girder crashed down at a Delhi metro rail construction site in South Delhi. 
 
The year 2008 witnessed three major disasters. An under-construction bridge in Uri, situated west of Srinagar, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, collapsed and killed several persons. Second, an under-construction bridge on Uttar Pradesh’s Faizabad National Highway collapsed too. Lastly but not the least, an accident that took place in on 19 October 2008, at a section of the Delhi Metro in the eastern part of the city, killed a person and injured several others. 
 
Lastly, how could one forget a major disaster, that struck on 10 September 2007, when at least 15 people were killed with several injured, when a flyover collapsed in one of the busiest areas of Hyderabad, a city that is modernising at great speed. 
 
Even the metro at Bengaluru has witnessed several big and small accidents at different locations in the city.
 
So the question that remains unanswered is why are construction accidents are so common in India with frequent crashes in different parts of the country from time to time?
 
It is not that Indian talent is any way inferior or less competent than their counterparts in developed countries. If at all, we churn out world-class engineers. The usual suspects for below par performance—deep and prevalent corruption, poor safety standards, weak accountability laws and never ending red-tape.
 
It is high time that the Indian government wake up to this grim reality which is not only resulting in delay in the execution of numerous important projects across the country, but has been causing loss of lives as well. At the same time it also conveys a very poor image of Indian engineers and workers which they don’t deserve.
 
(Dr SD Israni, advocate & partner, SD Israni Law Chambers, is one of India’s leading authority on corporate, commercial and securities laws. He was a member of the Naresh Chandra Committee for simplification of Company Law relating to private and small companies. He has been on SEBI's committee on disclosures (called the Malegam Committee) and the one on buy-back of shares. Dr Israni has been a member of the Legal Affairs Committee of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Indian Merchants' Chamber and Indian Council of Arbitration. Dr Israni is an active member of the Institute of Company Secretaries of India and was on its Central Council for four terms and headed the Capital Markets Committee of the ICSI.)

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