Morbi bridge collapse: Oreva points to ‘highly placed officials’ as HC pulls up municipality for ‘collusion’ with firm

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The Oreva Group, which was permitted to join the suo motu public interest litigation by the Gujarat High Court monitoring the Morbi bridge collapse, submitted on Wednesday that it did not perceive the litigation to be adversarial and offered to compensate the victims, even as it indicated that the company was persuaded by “very highly placed officials” to take up the bridge’s maintenance and operation.

The submission came even as the court pulled up Morbi Municipality and alluded that it worked in collusion with the company which led to the bridge collapse in October last year, killing 135 people.

The state, through advocate general Kamal Trivedi, submitted before the court that it is actively considering bringing out a policy pertaining to the maintenance of bridges in the jurisdictions of municipal corporations and municipalities, with a policy already existing for the remaining jurisdiction of the state under the roads and buildings department.

Additionally, the state submitted that across the state, 40 bridges require minor repairs, 23 require major repairs and of the total 63, the repair work has been completed for 27 bridges.

Meanwhile, the division bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice A J Shastri came down heavily on Morbi Municipality, inquiring why it did not take over when the Oreva Group in a letter dated December 2021 stated that the bridge was critical while lobbying for an increase in ticket prices for the bridge, and on the aspect that the municipality’s general body had not formally assented to the execution of the agreement in favour of Oreva to maintain and operate the bridge.

Senior counsel Devang Vyas, representing the municipality, responded that it had informed the company that if it is not agreeable to the civic body’s terms, the company must hand over the bridge to the municipality, following which, in a letter dated January 24, 2022, the company had indicated that it has already undertaken temporary repairs and would require a sum of Rs 1.25 crore to Rs 1.50 crore to execute complete repairing works and it is ready to execute the agreement on conditions.

Chief Justice Kumar, however, remarked, “See, the company is threatening you (in communication to the municipality dated) 24/1/2923…look at their tenor. And you’re keeping quiet…you’re the powerful body, you said you take all reasonable precautions as expected of a prudent person, why did you keep quiet? Now you are telling the (state) government, don’t initiate proceedings under Section 263 (of the Gujarat Municipalities Act)?”

Vyas submitted that the state has already issued show-cause notices under Section 263 of the Act, with the last date for responding to the same being January 25. Additionally, Vyas submitted that the bridge reopening was not brought to the municipality’s notice, to which Chief Justice Kumar replied, “..the inference that has to be drawn is, there was collusion between you two (municipality and company).”

The municipality also admitted that the agreement handing over the maintenance and operation of the bridge to Oreva was not formally approved by its general body. Vyas informed the court that the chief officer executed the agreement and only after execution did the officer bring it to the notice of the then municipality president, vice-president and committee members. “They only end up signing rojkam. Thereafter, a decision is taken to put it before the annual general body, which subsequently was never done…the new body came somewhere in March or April 2021. The new body was informed that the CO has executed an agreement. Pursuant to it they said, ‘Let us put it in general body and let us see if it can be approved or not.’ It is our case that the company on its own decided to open it for public at large without either informing state government or municipality.”

Oreva, represented by senior advocate Nirupam Nanavaty, alleged before the division bench that “Some very highly placed entities persuaded me (Oreva) to take over (maintenance, repair and operation of the bridge).” The company further added that the bridge was not a “commercial venture at all for the company,” and was part of the many philanthropic activities the company is involved with. “It is not that I was earning out of this. I will place relevant information on how I was persuaded to take this up. Somehow fortune has not favoured me, this disastrous event has taken place and I was doing whatever work has to be done, vigilantly. My clients (Oreva) are also shattered. At the same time if everyone wants to focus on only me, I am going to place the material,” Nanavaty submitted before the court.

Additionally, Nanavaty submitted that the company is not considering this litigation to be “adversarial”. “Something has happened at the end of municipality, some wrong has been committed by the company as well, and ultimately unprecedented damage has been done. Only thing we can do is to leave it to the court for compensation part, on our part. My instructions are, so far as 7 children who have become orphan, for them the company will not only take care by providing necessary residence, other life amenities, education and after attaining adulthood, as per their qualification, we will try to arrange jobs for them, either in the company or elsewhere,” Nanavaty said. The company is ready to provide compensation to the kin of the deceased and the injured victims.

The bench, however, made it clear that such compensation will not absolve the company of any liability, either directly or vicariously.