Op-Ed: RIP Ajay Bhumij, But No One Killed You!

When in trouble, tug at Odia pride. That was exactly what the president of the contractors’ association Prabhat Das was trying to do when he laid the blame squarely on the alleged love for non Odia contractors among officials and engineers of the Works department for the mishap at the Bomikhal overbridge last night that left one labourer dead and another critically injured.

Das’ argument would have been laughable had it not been such a serious matter. His attribution of the mishap to the government’s alleged love for non Odia contractors at the expense of their Odia counterparts must be dismissed with the contempt it richly deserves. After all, Panda Infra, the company that is executing the Bomikhal project, is owned by an Odia and few non Odia contractors have got the kind of favours that he has. Here is a company that was blacklisted after the mishap on September 10 last year, which also resulted in the death of a person, and yet allowed to continue executing the project. How many non Odia contractors have received that kind of preferential treatment?

Das’ attempt to put the entire blame on the officials in a desperate bid to exonerate one of his own also has to be taken with a bagful of salt. It is nobody’s case that engineers are not responsible in such cases. In fact, the buck indeed stops at them for they are the people on whom the responsibility of overseeing any construction work rests. But to argue that the company executing the work is completely blameless flies in the face of truth and common sense. After all, it is the contractor who signs an agreement to execute the work as per the specifications laid down by the department and is primarily responsible for adhering to them. As such, it must be taken to task for any deviation.

Das has done well to emphasize the role of PC (percentage) in every government work. But he obviously thinks the contractor buys the ‘right’ to lower the quality of work with the PC he pays to the officials. Going by what he has to say on the issue, no one – just no one – has given a a damn to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s clarion call for an end to the ‘PC culture’. May be the Chief Minister knew it when he gave the call, but is unable or unwilling to do anything about it. He has remained content after washing his hands off the two departments that have caused the maximum embarrassment to the government – water resources and works – so that blame, if any, could be laid at someone else’s doors while he remains unscathed.

As for the contractor himself, he has taken recourse to the time tested formula of “When in trouble, fish out (or cook up) your medical reports” that the rich and the powerful have used to telling effect every single time they fall foul of the law – Cuttack Choudwar MLA Pravat Biswal and Odisha Stevedores boss Mahima Mishra being only the latest examples. If Mr. Pratap Panda was indeed so sick that he had to be admitted to SCB medical college immediately after his arrest instead of being forwarded to court, what was he doing at home? Why was he not already in hospital?

This brings us to the question of the scarcely concealed nexus between contractors and officials. Normally, a blacklisted company should be barred from executing not just the project that it has bungled on, but also all future projects. But in this particular case, far from being debarred, the company was not only allowed to continue but was also granted extension after extension. As a result, a bridge that was to be completed in 2014 is nowhere near completion even in May 2018! During this time, the project cost has escalated from Rs. 35 crores to Rs. 55 crores. There are reasons to believe that deadlines are repeatedly extended precisely to justify cost overruns. Completing a project on time, it seems is in nobody’s interest. Delaying projects, in contrast, is in everyone’s interest – the contractor, the officials and the politicians – because it gives all of them an opportunity to line their pockets.

The rot lies at the very top because it is at this level that decisions to assign work and allow extension are taken. But when something goes wrong, as has happened in this case, it is the low level staff who are made sacrificial goats while those at the top go scot free – or even rewarded! What else explains the one year extension given to Works secretary Nalini Kanta Pradhan under whose watch at least seven bridges, small and big, have collapsed?

If the aftermath of last year’s mishap is anything to go by, no one is going to be punished for the collapse of the iron mess that killed a person. In fact, the exercise to whitewash the whole thing has already started in right earnest with the chief engineer of DIP & Roads Omprakash Patel blaming negligence on the part of the labourers for the mishap while all but exonerating the engineers. Neither of the two major stake holders – Works department officials and the contractor – appear to be losing any sleep over the death of a poor labourer. They know that the storm over the Bomikhal bridge collapse would blow over and it would soon be business as usual.

RIP Ajay Bhumij, but no one killed you!


(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)