On the night of October 29, 2022, a crush of humans in the Itaewon neighbourhood of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, led to the deaths of 156 people.
A day later, on October 30, in Morbi city of Gujarat, 139 people died after a bridge over the Machchu river collapsed.
It has been exactly six months since then.
In both countries, heavy doses of politics greeted the deaths. To both countries, global leaders wrote heavy letters of condolences. In both countries, many – though not all – asked if they were preventable. Some pointed to the government’s role in exacerbating the causes that led to them. Some asked very tough questions, others did everything possible to drown out the noise of these questions.
In their similarities, but especially and more so in their dissimilarities, the two tragedies present a quaint picture of the two systems that run their respective countries.
Time and place
Both incidents happened on holidays. Exacerbating the tragic element was the very fact that those who died were seeking to enjoy their day.
In Seoul’s Itaewon, Halloween celebrations are bigger than big. The Korean drama Itaewon Class, for instance, introduces the neighbourhood’s vibrant culture to viewers through a scene depicting Halloween. Last year was the first time that the gatherings saw pre-COVID levels of mass participation. News pieces predicted tens of thousands of visitors, mostly in their late teens and early twenties.
Gujarat, too, was as sharply in focus as could be. The state was awaiting assembly elections.
But in Morbi, which until the tragedy saw little activity, October 30 was a normal Sunday. A new bridge, opened to the public, drew town folk who for Rs 17 each, wanted an evening with views of a river. The bridge which collapsed is a colonial-era structure, and had been closed to the public until weeks before the collapse.
Terrifying moments of Morbi cable bridge collapse in Gujarat captured in CCTV
132 people lost their lives in this shocking tragedy pic.twitter.com/bleVRSVAY7
— Soumyajit Pattnaik (@soumyajitt) October 31, 2022
Initial news reports (Korea’s first reported that hundreds were injured, only later were deaths confirmed) treated the incidents with stunned disbelief and concern. In India, the toll climbed quickly. In Korea, all those who were first reported as having been injured, were, in one fell sweep announced as dead.
Later turns, however, indicated the two countries’ personal brands of greeting news.
In Korea, where the mainstream media is understood to largely be conservative and thus pro-establishment, many blamed youngsters for being out and about and celebrating a day that was not explicitly connected to Korean culture. The backlash against this was instant as the country’s very online population buckled down on people’s rights to celebrate any holiday they wanted to without getting killed.
In India, in close assonance, the rightwing mobilised soon enough to claim that the victims of the bridge collapse were the ones to blame for its collapse.
— Nimo Tai 🇮🇳 (@Cryptic_Miind) October 30, 2022
“They shook the bridge, here’s a video,” was the sum total of thousands of tweets. The Wire Science, in the immediate aftermath, analysed how the shaking of a bridge – while capable of bringing it to collapse – couldn’t really have been said to be the singular cause of it coming down.
News reports paved the way for clarity on both tragedies after the initial flurry. In Korea, the location of the incident played an important role.
“Although there was a brief spell between 1995 and 2005 when more progressive media emerged in Korea, since 1987, Korean media has largely been conservative. This meant that not a lot of Korean papers were drawing attention to the system failures that led to the crowd crush,” says Korean studies scholar Abhishek Sharma.
But, says Sharma, what turned the tide was the fact that Itaewon housed several foreign embassies and as a result, foreign media kept up steady attention on how the tragedy was being handled, the victims’ families’ protests demanding justice, and how they were coping.
The shift of large global publications’ newsrooms from a politically vulnerable Hong Kong to Seoul also contributed to the heightened spotlight on the matter.
I wrote this essay on the Itaewon disaster with the hope that we won’t forget the victims & to convey the weight this tragedy has on so many lives.
One month later, many are still left to grapple with what happened & how life simply carries on … https://t.co/b2spAt2JBq
— Kelly Kasulis Cho (@KasulisK) November 29, 2022
From as early as October 30, 2022, to mid-November, outlets like CNN, Washington Post, Vice and BBC were uploading deep dives and ‘What Really Happened’ pieces on the crowd crush, complete with interviews of authorities and victims.
In that time, traditional media outlets reported on daily updates like the beginning of an enquiry, but it can be argued that the human element of it was largely missing. Sharma notes that the lone left-leaning news outlet Hankyoreh (“note that its circulation is only half of the fifth largest paper in Korea,” he says) had struck a tone similar to foreign outlets.
올해 4월5일은 이태원 참사가 발생해 159명의 희생자가 세상을 떠난 지 159일째 되는 날입니다. pic.twitter.com/dwzIzeqjyK
— 한겨레 (@hanitweet) April 4, 2023
In India, most of the mainstream media reported on the tragedy with the air of it having interrupted a more important political event, the assembly election in the state.
Early on, a report by NDTV examined opposition parties Congress and AAP’s claim that a hospital where some of the injured were being treated was being refurbished with great haste ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit. The portal published before and after photos and this led to a smattering of commentary on priorities.
Most of the immediate coverage, including the unearthing of the fact that Oreva Group – the company tasked with the refurbishment of the Morbi bridge – had little experience in specialised construction work, was led by local Gujarati media, says veteran journalist Darshan Desai.
“They did interviews with Muslim boys who were helping with the rescue efforts, they also interviewed victims,” says Desai.
Gujarat Samachar TV, the Bhaskar app and website and other local channels offered what Desai called essential “saturation coverage.”
Heads of government
Speaking of Modi, the two tragedies are united by how the two heads of government found their way to their midst.
South Korean President Yoon Seokyeol, in many ways, resembles Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In Yoon’s public conduct, there are the stirrings of infringing upon media freedom that India is now familiar with. Yet one of the major points of difference is Yoon’s lack of popularity in Korea.
While both Modi and Yoon were particularly attached to the neighbourhoods which saw the tragedies, in Yoon’s case, this connection became a particular problem. This is because, shortly after coming to power, Yoon announced that he would no longer be executing his official duties from the Blue House – traditionally the official residence of the South Korean president. He set up an ambitious plan to move it and in the meantime has been working from Itaewon.
Seoul residents and commentators have long since been critical of this move. But after the Halloween tragedy, they were livid and claimed that hundreds of cops from the Itaewon Gu precinct had been moved to guard Yoon as a result of his move. Many said that this led to the lack of forces to tackle the crush on the day. Not helping Yoon was a steady claim that he moved the official residence on advice from a shaman. In the months since the tragedy, this claim has lost fire.
Staff shortages: In May, Yoon moved the presidential office from the historic Blue House to Yongsan, where Itaewon is. Over 700 Yongsan Police Department staff are devoted to Yoon’s security on a daily basis. On the night of October 28th, only 137 staff were sent to Itaewon. pic.twitter.com/jgh1xFRS5X
— Nodutdol | 노둣돌 (@nodutdol) October 31, 2022
Initially, Yoon said that prima facie it did not appear to him that the administration could have been responsible for this situation. After thorough criticism, he walked back on the statement.
He promptly announced a national mourning period and apologised to the nation a full seven days after the tragedy. His government’s special investigative unit, formed to look into the disaster, raided police, fire department and other government offices, in full media presence – in a style reminiscent of recent practice in India.
Modi, who was in and out of Gujarat frequently at that time because of election campaigns, visited Morbi two days after the tragedy.
While the toll was in its 30s and most parts of the country were yet to grasp what had happened, the Prime Minister’s Office tweeted through its official Twitter handle that an ex gratia of Rs 2 lakh would be given to the kin of the people killed in Morbi. At that time, there was no inkling of who could be responsible for the collapse. Initially, news channels reported that Modi was to cancel his plans in Gujarat in the light of the incident. However, the next day, Modi spoke at an event and said he was functioning with a heavy heart.
There has been no news connecting Modi to Morbi since November last year.
Who is to blame?
In both countries, the question of who is to blame for the tragedies took centre stage.
In the case of Itaewon, the government led with the charge that it could not possibly be blamed because the gathering of a crowd took place without a particular event or a designated organiser.
The Korean prime minister Han Duksoo deserves mention here. In a press conference which was attended by non-Korean speaking journalists, Han attempted to crack a joke, saying that a World Series match between the Lakers and Sox would be well provided for security-wise – as opposed to an organic gathering like in Itaewon. This insensitive joke made it to prime-time news there, leading the PM to offer a hasty apology.
Many were reluctant to believe that all was administratively okay at Itaewon that night. Besides, they said, the Korean subway has a method of not stopping at stations which see extra crowds. But that night the trains stopped at Itaewon through the night.
Later, some also ascribed some of the victims’ malintent and said that they were pushing others downhill, contributing to the crush. Some others fought this claim, observing that the situation could not have been known to anyone, considering that a steady crowd had been adding to the group every moment.
Earlier this year, the opposition-led National Assembly impeached Korean Interior Minister Lee Sang-min over the Itaewon response. The Blue Roof, a Korean policy newsletter, noted that Lee is the first cabinet minister in South Korean history to be impeached. “The motion to impeach alleged that Lee abdicated his duty to coordinate disaster response in violation of the constitution and statutes mandating officials’ responsibility to maintain public safety.”
The special investigation team’s report has highlighted the roles of a bunch of local police officials, subway authorities and fire department officials. But notably, senior position holders were not named. “We don’t even know if those named and taken into custody [two senior cops were arrested], are still in jail or out,” says Korean journalist Raphael Rashid.
In India, no press conference was held by any of the heads of government. Desai points out that all the action that needs to be performed by a government or municipal body was, in fact, done by the high court.
Indeed, the Gujarat high court’s suo motu recognition of the tragedy led it to ask remarkably straightforward questions, like how the Morbi bridge’s repair work was awarded to the Oreva Group, hitherto watch and e-bike manufacturers, without a tender.
A day after the tragedy, the Morbi police arrested nine persons. This group included Oreva managers, sub-contractors and remarkably, two ticket-booking clerks and three security guards who supposedly failed at crowd control.
Later, the managing director of Oreva Group, Jaysukh Patel, was arrested.
3 months after the #MorbiBridge tragedy, arrest warrant issued against Oreva owner Jaysukh Patel
And, not surprisingly, he's been absconding since day 1
Remarkable alacrity shown in a case where 135 people, including 55 children, got killed !
— Katyusha (@Indian10000000) January 22, 2023
In early April, five months after the tragedy, the Gujarat government superseded the Morbi civic body which is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party which rules the state too. Desai notes the appalling delay in such a move, and that it comes only after the court has hauled the government up. “The chief officer of the municipality was suspended but even now his name doesn’t appear in the FIR. There are 52 councillors in the Morbi civic body but they have all said that they did not know as to how Oreva got the deal. The chief officer apparently did it all and never let the general body know,” Desai says, highlighting the unbelievable aspects of the way blame has been apportioned.
While India is no stranger to seeing big losses disappear as more losses take over headline spaces, in Korea this particular tragedy has had a short shelf life in public and political imagination.
In Korea, the government functions with the knowledge that the Sewol tragedy of 2014 – when a sinking of a ferry killed 326 mostly young people – led eventually to a change in the government, spurred entirely by the people’s anger. The tragedy was made into a symbol of all that is wrong with the government and on its anniversary, even today, people and government officeholders mourn. Prominent artists have made songs, works of art and continue a public uproar about it even now.
Hashtags calling for Yoon’s resignation and opposition parties’ resolutions to get to the bottom of the matter on behalf of the people have lent an air of unease around Yoon. Even before the tragedy, South Korea’s previous president Moon Jaein scored higher on popularity scales than his successor.
But then, to the surprise of many, the daily demand for accountability almost came to a halt. “Itaewon was wrapped up quite quickly, almost swept under the carpet. This, in a country where the Sewol tragedy has proven to be never-ending in public memory, in a good way,” says Rashid.
Rashid says that the whole incident is reflective of the Yoon administration’s clear goal to get the media to stay in its lane.
A memorial set up at the City Hall Square by families of the victims was panned by Seoul mayor O Sehun as “illegal”.
A bereaved family is dragged out by the police after throwing out wreaths of condolences from President Yoon Seok-yeol and Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon at the joint mourn center for the victims of the Itaewon Tragedy in Seoul Plaza on the 4th, pic.twitter.com/FaT172ZvbO
— 어그레시브한 이새끼 (@ephemeral28) November 4, 2022
Not all is bleak. In late April, the interior ministry submitted a Complete National Safety Plan Overhaul report, aiming to look deeply into safety protocols for public situations like the one in Itaewon.
In India, news of administrations learning lessons are few. So it must be noted that in Gujarat, too, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in April lodged an FIR against officials of two firms that were involved in the construction of Ahmedabad’s Hatkeshwar bridge that was damaged in just four years after it was thrown open to the public. The Rs 40-crore bridge will be demolished, and this decision has come before extracting human cost.
However, there is no bigger testament to the fact that canny politics can override human loss than the vote of the people. The BJP, which quickly announced as its Morbi candidate one Kantilal Amrutiya, who made sure to be photographed rescuing people from the river, returned with a thumping victory to the state and to Morbi.
BJP winning on all seats of Morbi, result of BJP’s on ground relief work.. giving ticket to Kantilal Amrutiya who dived into the river without fanfare to help people. pic.twitter.com/Lgm3yQFJrl
— Ankit Jain (@indiantweeter) December 8, 2022
In favouring Amrutiya, the BJP snubbed its sitting Morbi MLA Brijesh Merja, changing tactic with the tragedy.
That Morbi has disappeared from public memory is also thanks to opposition parties’ inability to hold it up as a devastating human rights matter, feels Desai.
In a country of many, the fact that Morbi is not a big city, and that the tragedy’s victims are largely poor people are also crucial factors in the tragedy’s short shelf life in public memory.
A lone report by Newslaundry on the election round, had, however, noted that Morbi’s residents too suffered from serious trauma and the mental illnesses that follow the aftermath of a disaster as big as a bridge collapsing into a river.