Gujarat bridge collapse: HC bats for lifetime pension, help for victims’ kin

Observing that one-time compensation is not going to help the kin of the victims of the Morbi suspension bridge collapse, the Gujarat High Court asked the Oreva Group, the company responsible for operation and maintenance of the ill-fated bridge, to provide life-time pension to the elderly who lost their sons and jobs or stipend to widows.

The division bench of Chief Justice Sunil Agarwal and Justice Aniruddha Mayee was hearing a suo motu PIL on the October 30, 2022 incident in which 135 persons lost their lives after a British-era suspension bridge collapsed. According to the government, there are ten women who were widowed and seven children who were orphaned.

“Give jobs to widows, or stipend if they do not want to do jobs. You have to support them throughout their life. You have completely upturned their life. They may not be in a position to work. There are women who have never worked, never went out of their homes. How can you expect them to come out of their home and go to work somewhere?” Chief Justice Agarwal told the firm.

While the company claimed it was taking care of orphans and widows, the HC wanted to know what was it doing about elderly men who lost their young sons on whom they were dependent.

“Elderly males …were dependent upon the earnings of their sons ….What is support for them? Give them lifetime pension,” the court said.

“One time compensation is not going to help you. Please keep it in mind. This is a scar for life. One-time compensation may not be in a position to help them…There has to be some recurring expenditure by the company,” it said.

The HC bench also observed that a trust be created for disbursal of compensation to the affected people, as it may not be possible for the court to monitor the process for years. It also asked the government to suggest ways by which needs of the victims’ kin can be met.

The HC directed the Morbi collector to coordinate with the company and submit a report about the prevailing condition as well as the status and financial condition of the victims’ kin and the kind of support they need.

When the company complained that the victims’ hostility and allegations of tampering with evidence was hampering its work with them, the court ordered it to approach them through the collector.

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When the company’s lawyer complained about delay in hearing of regular bail plea of its CEO and managing director Jaysukh Patel and urged it to consider his “plight,” the court said the word “plight” should remain for those who have suffered because of its role, which has been made clear in the special investigation team report.

“After going through the SIT report, can you argue what you are arguing? It was your act, you were the company, you …replaced wooden plank with aluminium…After SIT report, you are not allowed to speak at all. You cannot argue you are the sufferer, you cannot place your problems before us,” the court said.

The government informed the court about the condition of 1,900 major bridges in the state, of which 384 are in municipal corporation areas and 113 are in municipalities.

The Chief Justice suggested that old bridges with heritage value should be repaired with the help of conservation architects.

Giving a contract to repair an old bridge to someone incompetent could result in a Morbi-like disaster, the court pointed out.

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