Accidents and criminal liability

It is not god or divine chance but human error and negligence that cause accidents. The collapse of a portion of a flyover under construction in Kolkata that crushed to death 24 people and injured scores of others points to gross mismanagement and neglect by the construction company IVRCL, as well as poor oversight by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation, run by the ruling Trinamool Congress. The project, which began in 2008 as part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, was delayed following objections from local residents, difficulties in land acquisition, want of mandatory clearances and cost escalation. It acquired a fresh life only recently with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asking for the work to be completed before the Assembly election in April-May. The contractor was allowed to continue as further delays in implementation would have been politically inconvenient for the administration. More than three-fourths of the work had been completed at the time of the accident, when construction was on at a frenetic pace. Nothing can explain the collapse of a 100-metre section of the 2.2-km flyover other than the failure to adhere to safety norms and the deviations from standard operating procedures by the builder. Attempts by representatives of the builder to first suggest it was an “act of god”, hinting perhaps that it was the result of an unexplainable disaster, and later to claim that it could have been the consequence of an explosion, have so far not been substantiated by accounts of eyewitnesses or evidence on the ground. Indeed, such explanations are but feeble efforts to evade responsibility for a disaster brought about by criminal negligence and wanton disregard of safety norms.

The scale of the tragedy, which saw pedestrians and passengers in vehicles passing through the busy junction on Vivekananda Road trapped under concrete slabs and metal structures, should prompt the State government to rethink the way such projects are executed and awarded. The tragedy is all the more heart-rending because the accident was entirely preventable. Instead of indulging in a blame game, and trying to shift responsibility for the loss of lives on to the previous Left Front government, Chief Minister Banerjee must take corrective measures and ensure an impartial investigation into the cause of the accident. To say that the builder had been blacklisted does not absolve the government of its regulatory and monitoring responsibilities. If there is sufficient evidence of prima facie guilt, those in the administration who did not discharge their regulatory role must be made to stand trial for their acts of omission and commission, and not just the private builder for the seemingly gross negligence. The Kolkata flyover collapse is another reminder that accidents are not unfortunate incidents beyond human control, but man-made tragedies that are wholly avoidable. When they do occur, accountability must be clearly fixed.