On October 30, while people were celebrating the Chhatt festival across the country, reports came in of a suspension bridge collapsing in Gujarat. The collapse of the 230-meter-long bridge located on the Machchu river in the Morbi district took the lives of at least 141 people and many were reported missing. The incident comes at a time when Gujarat is headed for assembly polls in a month’s time. ANI reported that nine people were arrested in connection with the bridge collapse — two managers of Oreva Group (the firm that was given the maintenance contract for the centuries-old bridge), two ticket clerks, two contractors, and three security guards.
In the wake of this, several news channels and social media users shared clips of people on the bridge shaking it recklessly, claiming they were all recent ones. In a subtle way, many of them linked this behaviour with the collapse of the bridge. Some went to the length of holding the victims responsible for the accident or even suggesting that there was a conspiracy. Alt News has found that for years, it has been a common practice for people visiting the Morbi bridge to stand on it and make it wobble. And there are ample reasons to believe that the administration was well aware of this practice.
Filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri clipped the CCTV footage of the bridge collapsing and tweeted, “There is no doubt now that #MorbiBridgeCollapse is a sabotage by #UrbanNaxals as a planned strategy. They have been destroying schools, hospitals, roads, rail tracks & bridges.” (Archive.)
A conspiracy theory was also alleged by several pro-BJP social media users — Major Surendra Poonia (Retd) (over one lakh views), Flt Lt Anoop Verma (Retd), Sushil Kedia (over 2,500 retweets), @Saffron_Sn. Most of them drew attention to the fact that people were seen vigorously shaking the bridge in various clips. It is relevant to note that in the past, Poonia and Verma have shared misinformation on social media.
Republic Bharat shared a video of its broadcast on Facebook at 10:12 PM IST where the clip of the overcrowded bridge was aired multiple times as ‘exclusive’ footage of the bridge moments before the disaster. In this viral clip, an arrow points at the crowd that can be seen vigorously shaking the bridge, some are even seen kicking the rails of the bridge.
Zee News English also shared a video of its broadcast on Facebook where they aired the footage of the aftermath of the disaster and the overcrowded bridge side by side. This was again aired as ‘exclusive’ footage of the bridge moments before the disaster.
NDTV followed suit and shared the broadcast on Facebook. Unlike the first two, NDTV claimed the viral clip was shot 24 hours before the collapse. Interestingly, the three channels aired the same footage where an arrow points at the people on the overcrowded bridge.
An ABP News report said the crowd on the bridge was increasing and people started shaking it (Archive). BJP worker Priti Gandhi also shared the same clip late Sunday evening. She called for a thorough investigation into the disaster. (Archive)
There are others who were even more vociferous in their victim-blaming. One user, while replying to a tweet by senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, said that “…people themselves have to be blamed for overcrowding”. Her concern was that demand for regulations paves way for the opposition to criticize the government when such mishaps occur. Sushil Kedia, who is the founder of a market research firm, called out Arvind Kejriwal in his tweet. It appears the tweet also put the onus of the accident on the victims.
Shaking of the bridge is an age-old practice
Alt News found that the official website of Gujarat Tourism lists the Hanging Bridge of Morbi (locally known as Julto pul). It is also listed on the Film Facilitation Office India. This establishes one crucial point that the Gujarat government and the central government recognize the bridge as a point of tourist attraction.
In the 30-second CCTV footage of the calamity in question, we see that people were vigorously shaking the bridge. As pointed out earlier in the article, several media outlets and pro-BJP social media handles had highlighted a clip of people acting recklessly on the bridge.
#Watch the CCTV footage of the bridge collapse in Gujarat’s Morbi. Over 200 people have been rescued from the site of the incident, MoS Harsh Sanghvi said Monday. #MorbiBridgeCollapse
Follow live updates: https://t.co/yxhdG5Hw3P pic.twitter.com/d1cKoTSDQw
— The Indian Express (@IndianExpress) October 31, 2022
Alt News found multiple clips on social media that establish that it is a common practice for visitors to shake the bridge. Many of them were deleted in light of the calamity. Some of them which can still be accessed are:
- December 2018: Close-up of people on the bridge shaking it
- January, 2021: A detailed vlog about the tourist site. This clip shows reckless shaking as well.
- November 2021: A vlog where around the 1:40 mark we can see the walk-through on the bridge
- March 2022: Another vlog where after the 4-minute mark entire walkthrough of the bridge can be seen
Below, the readers can see a compilation of videos where people are shaking the hanging bridge.
Alt News analyzed the January 2021 vlog (attached below) which includes details of ticket prices and inputs on how safe it is to visit the bridge on holidays when it is crowded. Due to the sensitive nature of the story, we have taken measures to protect the identity of the vlogger while embedding in the video.
In the 2021 vlog, the vlogger estimates that there were approximately 300-400 people visiting the bridge at that particular time. He shows a wide-angle view of people recklessly shaking the bridge. As he approaches the bridge, he informs the viewers that those who want to visit with family should avoid it during festivals and holidays. From the 21st to the 35-second mark, we can see visitors recklessly shaking the bridge. At one point in the video, the vlogger says that he is worried that his phone might fall and is ‘feeling scared’.
Thus, multiple videos establish that it has been usual for visitors for quite some time to shake the bridge recklessly while standing on it. The administration, however, did not place effective measures to stop this practice from the public. Thus, to attribute the collapse of a newly renovated bridge to this behaviour or a conspiracy is misleading.
The vlogger also says that there is an entry ticket for the bridge. Alt News spoke with Gujarat-based journalist Roxy Gagdekar Chhara. The journalist, who did ground reportage on the Morbi calamity, said, “Based on my reportage, it appears everyone purchased the ticket.” As per media reports, about 500 persons were on the bridge at the time when it collapsed. (NDTV, Zee News, and Hindustan Times)
Who is supposed to supervise the functioning of the bridge?
FirstPost reported, “The hanging bridge was first inaugurated on 20 February 1879 by then-Mumbai governor Richard Temple. All the material came from England and cost Rs 3.5 lakh at that time to construct the bridge.” The report added that During the 2001 earthquake, it ‘suffered severe damage’.
In March 2022, Morbi Municipality shut down the bridge for renovation at a cost of Rs 2 crore. The contract was given to the Oreva Group (Ajanta Manufacturing Private Limited), which specializes in making wall clocks, e-bikes and LED lights, for operation and maintenance for 15 years. After six months of renovation, it was reopened on October 26 — five days before the incident took place, the FirstPost report added. (The Indian Express has reported that the Oreva Group has been involved in the maintenance of the bridge since 2008.)
On October 26 Oreva Group’s MD Jaysukh Patel told the media in a press conference, after the inauguration of the bridge, said: “… The way this bridge has been built…. according to us next renovation should take place approximately from eight to 10 years from now… nothing should happen [to the bridge] until then”.
Alt News accessed a contract between Ajanta Manufacturing Private Limited and the approving body Morbi Nagar Palika via NDTV journalist Tanushree Pandey. As per the final point in the contract [highlighted in red], “During the term of the agreement, the revenue and expenditure of the suspension bridge shall be the share of Ajanta Manufacturing Private Limited (Oreva Group) and all administrative functions such as staff appointment, cleaning, ticket booking, maintenance, collection, expense accounts etc. shall be done by Ajanta Manufacturing Pvt Ltd (Oreva Group) who will take care of the affairs which will not involve the intervention of government, non-government, town council or any other agencies.”
In 2020, the Twitter handle ‘Morbi Today’ tweeted (Archived link) an article reporting how visitors needed to sign an ‘accident consent’ prior to visiting the Jhulta Pul. The article stands deleted as of today. However, the tweet includes the image of the form. Alt News has added the translated version of the form below. This confirms that the government was very well aware of the risks associated with the bridge.
After the accident, an Indian Express report quoted Sandeepsinh Zala, chief officer, Morbi municipality, as saying, “The bridge is a property of the Morbi municipality, but we had handed it over to Oreva Group a few months ago for maintenance and operations for a duration of 15 years. However, the private firm threw the bridge open to visitors without notifying us, and therefore, we couldn’t get a safety audit of the bridge conducted.” He added, “It was opened to the public after the completion of the renovation work. But the local municipality had not yet issued any fitness certificate (after the renovation work).”
It is unclear how the bridge was allowed to be thrown open to the public on October 26 if a fitness certificate was not issued. The readers should note that in an Aaj Tak bulletin (screenshot below) a flex can be seen which warns visitors against overcrowding and taking selfies on the bridge. However, it is clear that the mere existence of the caveat did not stop people from assembling on the bridge in extremely large numbers.
To sum it up, after the hanging bridge of Morbi collapsed claiming at least 140 lives, several media outlets aired clips of people shaking the bridge as a possible reason for the accident, without informing the viewers that it was a common practice for a long time. However, it is important to note that the local municipality had not issued a fitness certificate after the recent renovation of the bridge.
Furthermore, many pro-BJP social media users have shared unrelated clips of people shaking the bridge in an attempt to whitewash the accountability of the government and the firm entrusted with the bridge’s maintenance to control overcrowding and reckless behaviour on the bridge. Instead, they alleged that the bridge collapsed due to conspiracy.
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