Days after 135 people were killed when a suspension bridge collapsed in Morbi town, the Gujarat High Court on Tuesday asked the state government as to why no expression of interest (EoI) was invited for maintenance and operation of the British-era structure and how “largesse” was given to an individual without floating a tender.
The HC made the observation while hearing a suo motu (on its own) Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the collapse of the suspension bridge on the Machchhu river on October 30, five days after it was reopened following renovation.
The high court wanted to know from the state government as to whether a 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and a 2022 agreement with Ajanta Manufacturing Private Ltd (Oreva Group) imposed any conditions regarding fitness certification and if so, who was the competent authority required to do so.
The Ahmedabad-based Oreva group had been maintaining and managing the ill-fated suspension bridge.
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“This (2008) agreement with Ajanta (Oreva Group) is one-and-a-quarter pages agreement, absolutely without any conditions. This agreement is by way of an understanding, largesse of the state for ten years, and no tenders floated, no expression of interest,” a division bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh Shastri observed.
“After that term was over in June 15, 2017, what steps were taken by the state government or the Morbi municipality to float a tender? How come no expression of interest was tendered, and how the largesse of the state was given to an individual without floating a tender…Why you have still not superseded the municipality?” the court asked.
The court observed that even after the term of Ajanta got over in June 15, 2017, the corporate entity continued to maintain and manage the bridge in absence of an agreement.
It wanted to know from the state government whether any steps were taken by the local authorities to float a tender for the bridge’s operation and maintenance after the 2008 MoU expired in 2017.
“Under the said (2008) MoU (not available at present), who had been fixed the responsibility to certify that the bridge is ready and fit for usage is not forthcoming. The largesse of the state seems to have been granted without there being any tender floated in this regard,” observed the judges.
The company had informed the Morbi Collector on various dates (four times) in 2020 that until and unless an agreement is executed, it will not commence the repairing work of the suspension bridge, it said.
“Yet, the Ajanta (Oreva) Group continued to operate, maintain and receive the revenue from the visitors to the bridge. The subject bridge was closed on March 8, 2022, till October 25, 2022,” the court said.
The HC said it was not forthcoming from the affidavit filed by the respondent registrar of municipalities of Rajkot as to who was given the responsibility to certify the bridge under the 2008 MoU.
It wanted to know from the state government as to whether steps were taken by the collector of Rajkot, and the Morbi municipality to call for either an EoI or float a tender for the further period after the expiry of the tender in 2017.
Morbi district was formed on August 15, 2013, and earlier it was part of Rajkot district.
The court also wanted to know as to whether any condition was imposed in the MoU dated June 16, 2008, and agreement dated March 8, 2022 that certification of the bridge being fit for usage is to be issued, and if so, who was the competent authority required to certify the same.
It asked as to whether any steps were taken by the state government through the Morbi collector or Morbi municipality to float an EoI or a tender for maintenance, repair, management of the bridge after the term of the 2007 MoU ended on June 15, 2017.
The HC sought to know whether the state’s largesse was given to the Oreva Group without inviting any tender, and what was the basis for the bridge being permitted to be operated by the company after June 15, 2017, even when the MoU dated June 16, 2008, was not renewed.
The court directed the government to secure the entire file relating to the bridge till date and give it to registrar (judicial) in a sealed cover in two days, and sought details of action taken against the chief officer of the Morbi municipality.
It sought to know whether the state government has thought about providing employment to the families which have lost their sole bread earners in the tragedy.
The State Human Rights Commission has formed a committee for inquire into the tragedy, the HC was informed.
The HC sought a reply from the state government on various issues regarding the 2008 MoU and directed it to place on record an affidavit on or before November 24.
The matter was kept for further hearing on Wednesday.
On October 31, police arrested nine persons, including four staff members of the Oreva group that was managing the Morbi suspension bridge, and filed a case against firms tasked with the maintenance and operation of the structure.