The Gujarat High Court on Thursday pulled up the Morbi Nagar Palika (MNP) saying it did little to take over the Julto Pul (Morbi bridge) from the private contractor managing the bridge and that it even avoided the regular warnings given by the contractor itself [Suo Motu PIL vs State of Gujarat].
A bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh J Shastri noted that the communications between the contractor and the MNP from December 2021 focused more on rate of visitors' ticket to the bridge and not the repairs which the bridge was in need of.
"The tenor of the letter (by Contractor) would show that it was concentrated on the rate of the ticket than the condition of the bridge. The Palika seems to have ignored the warnings signalled by the Contractor, regarding condition of the bridge. The exchange between the Contractor and the Palika is only for retention of the contract rather than bestowing attention for repair of the bridge, which was in a critical stage," the bench observed.
The Court, therefore, asked Advocate General Kamal Trivedi to take instructions on whether the State government is planning to dissolve or supersede the MNP.
"If not this magnitude of a tragedy warrant suspension of the civic body then what is the State waiting for? Either you decide or we will pass orders," the Chief Justice remarked.
The bench was hearing a suo motu PIL it took up earlier this month to examine the tragic incident of the collapse of the suspension bridge in Morbi, wherein over 135 people died and hundred were left injured.
The bench today referred to the Municipality Act, which allows the State to dissolve a civic body in case of abuse of power, default or for incompetency.
"The catastrophe or the tragedy struck in Morbi, prima facie cannot be brushed aside as not exhibiting the incompetency or default of the Nagar Palika. It is for this precise reason, we posed a question to the State as to why it doesn't dissolve or supersede the civic body," the bench clarified.
Regarding the action against the then Chief Officer of the MNP, the bench was told the State is yet to initiate disciplinary proceedings as it was awaiting the outcome of the criminal prosecution.
"We aren't ready to accept State's submissions on this. People have died, he has shown incompetence too. At least dereliction of duty proceedings can be initiated against him and mere suspension would not work," CJ Kumar underscored.
The bench was irked when Senior Advocate Devang Vyas said that the initial Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed with the contractor by the then Collector of Rajkot in 2008 and that the MNP came into picture only after the new MoU was inked in March 2022, which was subject to approval by the MNP's General Body.
"But what did you do when the first MoU expired in 2017? Do you want to shift your blame to the then Collector? What did you do from 2017 till March 2022? The bridge was shut only in March 2022, what about the time before that which is 5 years? The contractor continued to operate the bridge, so how will you explain your inaction?" the bench asked.
Vyas, however, said that there are no records after the first MoU expired in 2017. He even clarified that no one explicitly granted any permission to the contractor to operate the bridge after 2017.
"And you did nothing to stop him? Can you please explain this inaction to us? How you allowed him to operate the bridge? What did you do after December 2021, when Contractor told you about condition of the bridge?" the bench asked MNP.
The bench noted that the MNP's affidavit lacked the details that were sought by the court in the previous hearing held on November 14.
"Abysmally low compensation"
During the hearing, the bench also noted from the affidavit filed by the Gujarat government that compensation awarded to the kin of victims was not satisfactory. It also expressed its concerns over the ₹4 lakh ex gratia amount from the Chief Minister's Relief Fund (CM Fund), which would be given to the kin of the deceased.
"This ₹4 lakh, we are not satisfied. You will have to do something. At least double the amount so that each one gets at least ₹10 lakh. We are of the view that the compensation paid under the CM relief fund is abysmally on the lower side," the bench remarked.
The bench also opined that the compensation amount of ₹50,000 to be paid to the injured persons was also on the lower side and there were no records with regard to the details of injuries of such persons.
The bench also asked for the break-up of total compensation - as to how much amount was from CM fund, how much from Prime Minister's Relief Fund and also from private donors.
"Also, focus on disbursement, how you plan to do it. Please don't do what you did in that matter saying for Gujarat kidney, we will give preference only to people of Gujarat. Please don't do that in this case," the Chief Justice quipped.
Further, the bench noted that seven children have been orphaned in this incident while twelve lost at least one parent. It noted that the State plans to pay ₹3,000 per month to such children besides the ₹50 crore amount received from the private donors.
"What is this? We think this amount is highly insufficient. ₹3,000 in these days? The uniform and books will only consume this amount. Please consider enhancing it," the bench ordered.