The collapse of the British-era bridge spanning the Savitri river in Mahad on Wednesday has authorities taking a closer look at the rail bridge over the Vaitarna river, which Western Railway authorities admit has been weakened due to illegal sand mining on the river bed. Ten bodies have been recovered during the ongoing search-and-rescue operations.
The Vaitarna bridge in Virar, built by the British, is the only rail bridge connecting the state to Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and north India, and is used by the Rajdhani, Shatabdi, August Kranti, Duronto and other Express trains. The WR has asked for sand mining activity to be controlled, and has banned such activity within 500m of the bridge.
Ravinder Bhakar, CPRO, WR confirmed that illegal sand mining has left the bridge’s foundation a bit shaky. “We are taking all precautions to prevent further damage to the bridge. The WR had complained to the District Magistrate, Thane and District Collector, Palghar to check rampant illegal sand mining in the river Vaitarna, but no action is being taken .”
He added, “We believe there is a nexus between the sand mafia and certain state government departments. Due to the illegal sand mining, the flow of the Vaitarna has been altered, which is a dangerous sign for the bridge’s health. It is the sole connector to north India, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. As a preventive measure, we have stacked gunny bags filled with coarse sand so that the foundation of the bridge is not exposed.”
Illegal excavation for sand is continuing despite a ban by the district administration, Virar-based activist Mangesh Karale said. According to him, a truckload of sand fetches anything between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 20,000. Zakeer Meshtri, a social activist from Vasai, said illegal excavation is done late at night by the sand mafia, using suction pumps .
On August 1, 2011, around 25 feet of the bridge was washed away by soil erosion, which was noticed by an alert motorman of a Dahanu local, who alerted the Vaitarna railway station. Traffic was halted for five hours until the bridge was repaired.
The writer is a freelance journalist