Featured

For a Few Minutes More: A Family Remembers Kolkata’s Flyover Collapse

On March 31, 2016, a flyover came crashing down, killing 27 people. The Bengal government, however, forgot that it’s been a year since the tragedy.

The unfinished flyover at Ganesh Talkies crossing. Courtesy: Sohini Choudhuri

The unfinished flyover at Ganesh Talkies crossing. Courtesy: Sohini Chattopadhyay

Kolkata: Kaushal Mehrotra often finds himself counting the minutes of that afternoon of March 31 last year. The second-year college student was on his way back from a doctor’s appointment when he ran into his uncle, Sanjay.

It was 12:15 pm then. Maybe 12:17.

They had spoken that morning but the Mehrotras were a close knit joint family and Sanjay wanted to know what the doctor had to say. All good, Kaushal told him, and Sanjay was off, on his way to the family’s yarn store in Burrabazaar.

At 12:25 pm, an extension of the under-construction Vivekananda Road flyover collapsed at the Ganesh Talkies crossing, one of the busiest intersections in Kolkata, near Burrabazaar, which houses the biggest commercial market in the east of the country.

Twenty-seven people were officially reported killed in what has been described as one of deadliest failures in basic urban infrastructure, even in India where collapsed bridges and building are nothing new. A   bridge fell in New Delhi ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, leaving 23 injured. Two people died in Hyderabad in 2007 when a flyover caved in.

Kaushal had just sat down to lunch when they got news of the accident. The Mehrotras share a rented house on Ramdulal Sarkar Street in Burrabazaar, a few minutes’ walking distance from Vivekananda Road.

 Early reports suggested three casualties. Sanjay Mehrotra’s name was flashed right from the start.

“When we saw his name on one of the channels, we assumed he was injured,” Kaushal said. “We thought that he must have been one of the first to be rescued.”

They called Sanjay. The mobile phone rang but there was no answer.  Kaushal and his elder brother, Karan, rushed to the chaotic accident site. Their father, Lokesh, Sanjay’s elder brother joined them there.

On television, the collapse of the flyover looked like standard Hollywood VFX, a sequence from Godzilla or The Avengers crushing something to rubble. But the films never showed how maddening it feels.

They called Sanjay again. This time, someone answered. Come to the Calcutta Medical College, the voice said.

By 1 pm, they knew that Sanjay was not among the injured any more. His face was peaceful, his upper body was untouched. But from the pelvis downward he was crushed. He was 50.

Kaushal was perhaps right. Sanjay would have been one of the first to have been taken out of the rubble in the rescue operations that carried on for more than 48 hours. Bodies, cars, a bus were dug out of the debris for two days and nights.

“We must have missed him by minutes [at the hospital]. The man who picked up the phone kept saying ‘Sanju’. How did they know his nickname unless he told them,” Kaushal wondered. “Then, again, I wish I had chatted a bit longer with him when we met. Just a few minutes more.”

Quick compensation and job offers

For the West Bengal government, the accident happened at the worst possible time – on the eve of the assembly elections in the state. And perhaps this is why the family didn’t have to run around. The post-mortem report and the body were handed over to them by early evening.

Government officers visited them that very evening to verify their identity documents. The compensation cheque for Rs 5 lakh was handed over in a couple of days. State minister Sashi Panja visited them on the day of the accident and was present when the family marked the death with a ritual. She promised to write his widow a letter for a government job, and she did.

Most victims’ families in Kolkata received their cheques within a week, The Times of India reported.  The Trinamool Congress government’s response is a manual in how to pull off damage control in election season. It worked: the Trinamool MLA in the constituency, Smita Bakshi, was re-elected.

The deft damage control probably served another purpose: with the cheques handed over quickly and the promise of government jobs, the victims’ families had little reason to band together to file a case against the state. The Mehrotras consulted a lawyer but eventually decided against the move. They didn’t want to jeopardise the job.

That took almost nine months of running around. On February  15 this year, Sanjay’s widow Sonia took up the Group C assignment, ironically with the Department of Disaster Management. It pays Rs 11,500 a month with a 3%  annual increment.

“More than the money, I want the girl to come to grips with things,” Reena Mehrotra, Sonia’s sister-in-law, said. “We have been housewives our entire lives. This kind of thing…it’s hard for the world to make sense.”

To mark one year since the tragedy, a small prayer meet was held at 12:25 pm, the hour the flyover fell. A group of 30 people gathered, many of them journalists. Later, some in the group took out a short march asking the government to bring down the still-standing flyover.

Other than that, there was not even a tweet to mark the day. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who tweets daily, often to wish people for a festival or to mark an anniversary, was silent. The Trinamool’s official handle spent most of the day tweeting about the leather industry.

The criminal case into the accident is yet to come to the trial stage. Proceedings will begin once the police file the complete chargesheet. The next story in the series will look at the charges of negligence which indicts officials from top down, as per allegations by the police.

Sohini Chattopadhyay is a freelance journalist.