The part of the Varanasi flyover which came crashing down killing 17 people had been constructed only in February. This suggests shoddy execution and possibly poor quality material, something that plagues many construction projects in India. Projects are undertaken in haste, often before elections, are executed with little planning and with scant regard to engineering norms. Most infrastructure projects suffer from huge delays that push costs up and encourage contractors to cut corners. This causes lethal structural failures as seen in the Varanasi case and other projects. In 2016, a flyover collapsed in Kolkata, killing 27 people.
Corruption is usually at the root of it which is why the National Democratic Alliance government had promised to improve Indias crumbling infrastructure through foreign direct investment. Since the primary culprit here is the construction industry, it would be useful and necessary to have greater transparency in bidding and awarding of contracts. In many cases, contracts are given out to people without adequate qualifications who either execute the project in a faulty manner or compromise on quality to make profits. Once an accident such as the Varanasi flyover collapse takes place, it is vital that accountability be fixed starting from the source of the contract.
India has a huge infrastructure deficit. While the construction of high rises, bridges, underpasses and metro lines is in overdrive, attention must also be paid to their durability and life cycle. The very fact that every monsoon, many urban roads and buildings cave in suggests that contractors do not build infrastructure to last. All major infrastructure projects should have periodic checks for defects. The New York subway, the lifeline for commuters in the city, was shut for months for upgradation a few years ago. Upgrading of infrastructure should be an ongoing process, but this is rarely done here.
The politician-bureaucrat-builder nexus is no secret. But the regularity with which poor infrastructure costs people their lives suggests that nothing has been done to break this. Contracts should have a clear timeline and strict fines should be imposed if the contractor fails to execute the project on time. Periodic reviews should also factor in the number of people who use the infrastructure and adjustments made to accommodate changes. The stampede in Elphinstone station in Mumbai was because the footbridge had not been widened to keep pace with the number of commuters using it. There is no point talking of smart cities if we cannot get the basics right. After the Kolkata flyover collapse, we saw an ugly political blame game. Politicians, city planners and contractors must take ownership of infrastructure projects. It is the only way to prevent similar disasters.