If only this had happened near Bangalore or Delhi

S.R. RAMAKRISHNA writes from Bangalore: One of India’s most shameful engineering failures went almost unnoticed because the site is located far from our media hubs, and perhaps also because it killed only poor people.

You would have expected the Anegundi bridge collapse and the subsequent rescue attempts to have made it to prime time national news at least because it occurred near Hampi, a world heritage site supervised by the Unesco, but not many from the media were at the site when the first body was fished out on Saturday.

As a MiD DAY team watched, the rescue team reported a breakthrough, some 40 hours after the suspension bridge had crashed.

The rescuers have found seven bodies so far. People suspect many more were crushed when the bridge fell at 3 pm last Thursday. A district reporter said he had photographed the bridge just two hours before the accident, and had found about 15 men working. That could mean at least half a dozen workers are still trapped under the bridge.

Policemen in coracles pulled the first body by its hair, and rowed to the bank opposite where we stood. The site is in Koppal, a district carved out recently from Bellary. Anegundi is just 5 km from Hampi.

Hampi is an overnight journey from Bangalore. Like in Mumbai, the slumdog-millionaire contrast is stark in the Bellary region. While mining boomed, this dusty city was selling the largest number of luxury cars in India, and the Reddys, who own mines here, are worth more than the GDP of some small Indian states.

When MiD DAY tried to call tourism minister G. Janardhana Reddy, famous as the richest politician in Karnataka, we only reached his staff, who gave us numbers that turned out duds. He just did not come on the phone, though we tried all afternoon and evening.

Almost all prominent miners here are active in politics. They own fleets of aircraft, and could put Mumbai’s celebs in the shade when it comes to living it up.

By contrast, Rasool Sab, a casual worker who served the public works deparment for 22 years, earned Rs 1,500 a month. He is suspected dead, and the eldest two of his five children paced the banks waiting for the rescue team to find his body.

Not a single politician went to the spot the day the bridge came crashing down, and relief took a long time coming. In fact, we heard horror stories about what had happened when a swimmers’ team was called from Bellary.

They arrived by bus, and demanded that they be insured. The babus went into a tizzy. Who would insure them? The irrigation department? The PWD? The district administration? And in any case, shouldn’t rescue workers be insured all the time? And as the poor died, no miner thought it fit to send a plane to airlift rescue workers to the accident site.

K. Virupakshappa, MP from Koppal, blamed the contractors for the tragedy. “A day before the accident a cable holding up the hanging bridge snapped. They continued work after welding it. If they had taken proper measures, they could have averted this accident,” he told MiD DAY.

The government has not initiated any action against the contractors. District in-charge minister Govind M. Karjol said, “No one could have survived the collapse because the water is 180 feet deep,” he told MiD DAY. “The workers went down with the huge slab, and once in water, they would have died in less than 10 minutes.”

The government has declared Rs 1 lakh as compensation for each bereaved family, but the poor neighbourhood is wondering how much of it will reach the right hands, and when.

This report originally appeared in Mid-Day, used with kind courtesy

Additional reporting by Madhusudan Maney

Photograph: courtesy The Hindu