Indian commuters risk their lives every day as more than 5,000 bridges need repairs – The Guardian | CarTailz

The collapse of a bridge in Gujarat, killing 135 people, has sparked concerns about the safety of thousands of other colonial-era buildings across India.

The bridge in Morbi was more than a century old when it broke in two last month as families gathered on it to enjoy an evening on the river. Many of those standing in the middle of the bridge fell into the river and drowned, while others died from impact with the stones and boulders below.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled government of Gujarat had awarded the contract to repair the 100-year-old suspension bridge to a local clock-making company called Oreva.

People live and work at Delhi’s Old Iron Bridge, built in 1866 on the Yamuna River. Photo: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Now fears are growing for India’s other aging bridges. The country has about 173,000 bridges and about 36,470 of them were built under the Raj. Nearly 6,700 are even older, some being built 140 years ago, according to the latest information in the 2015 Railways Audit Report.

Many of them are technically “distressed,” meaning they are dilapidated, likely risky, and in dire need of repair or reinforcement.

At least that’s what the Indian Bridge Management System Center estimates 5,300 bridges are structurally affected and need attention. In one state alone, Uttar Pradesh, there were up to 226 non-performing bridges in 2018.

Sahil Mhatre, a member of the Indian Institution of Bridge Engineers, said many distressed and old bridges are “structurally untested” and this is worrying as those being built by the British are designed to carry far lighter loads. “The government should do structural reviews every three to four years and use strain gauges to check the quality of the concrete for cracks or vibration to see if they can take the load. Modern bridges have sensors embedded in the structure to set off alarms, but India’s ancient bridges obviously don’t have them,” he said.

The rescue operation following the collapse of the Morbi suspension bridge last week
The rescue operation following the collapse of the Morbi suspension bridge last week. Photo: Divyakant Solanki/EPA

In 2018, a parliamentary committee found that India’s railway bridges pose a risk to passengers and are in urgent need of rehabilitation. She chided the railroads for excessive delays in repairing distressed bridges, which she said led to “the possibility of compromising passenger safety”.

The report also commended old British bridges for their quality: “While certain railway bridges built during British rule are in good condition, railway bridges … built after independence are of inferior quality and often in need of repair … [The] The connection between railway officials and a few contractors severely affects the quality and durability of the build.”

The train drives over an old bridge made of rusting metal girders
A bridge over the Yamuna River over in Allahabad. Photo: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

However, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has notoriously criticized Britain’s legacy in India, targeting the English language and branding it a “colonial relic” that has fostered a “slave mentality”. Stay with me has been removed from India’s annual Republic Day celebrations and replaced with a patriotic Hindi song, and the Indian Army is considering abolishing the English names of some army regiments.

But Modi’s critics have questioned whether his priorities are wrong. “Rather than renaming streets and attacking English, the BJP had better face the real challenge of preserving colonial-era bridges that have endured for so long but are now coping with loads they were never meant to handle,” said commentator Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

One of them is the old Yamuna Bridge in the Indian capital, built in 1866, making it one of the oldest in the country. Poor workers sleep and live under the iron girders.

“Thousands of commuters who use it every day are risking their lives. It was intended for horses, carriages and pack animals. Now trains and cars are on it,” said Atul Bose, who works with slum dwellers in the area.

Jatin L Singh, founder of the Rail Enthusiasts’ Society, marveled at the foresight of British-era engineers in designing bridges so that additional capacity could later be added.

“The former Jubilee Bridge over the Hooghly River in Kolkata, built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s 50th birthday, opened in 1885. It had one track for trains, but the engineers created capacity for two tracks should they be needed in the future, which of course it was,” Singh said. After 131 years, the bridge was decommissioned in 2016.

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