Asvinbhai Hadiyar lives in a two-room shanty home in Vajepar area of Morbi with his parents. The 36-year-old was the sole earner of his family until he severely injured his leg in the accident when the suspension bridge over the Machhu river collapsed on October 30. Now he lies in a room with plaster on left leg, uncertain of being able to work ‘normally’.
“I used to work as a watchmaker in Kuber Times for Rs 800 a day. I was the only one with a stable job in my family. My two brothers are daily wage earners so parents have been living with me,” Asvinbhai tells The Federal.
On October 30, Jhulto Pool, the 143-year-old pedestrian suspension bridge over the Machhu river in Morbi district collapsed killing more than 140 persons and injuring over 80. The bridge had reopened just after a renovation during Diwali when thousands of people visited the only recreational place in town, leading to its collapse due to extra weight.
Resigned to fate
While a committee probes the case and the Gujarat High Court tries to fix accountability of the ruling government and civic body, locals of Morbi have resigned to blaming ‘fate’ for the tragedy.
“After the 2001 earthquake, I stopped going to school and began to work until a tragedy struck again. It’s fate, what can one do? What will the political parties do? Everyone came to visit when I was admitted to the hospital. PM Narendra Modi and other leaders from Delhi and Rajasthan visited. No local leaders have turned up till today. No one talks about the tragedy as a part of the election agenda either. Those who lost families or are injured are still coping. We have no expectation from any political party,” says Asvinbhai, who is one of the government witnesses in the case.
“I am following the legal developments through the news though. I don’t understand any legal process. If the government had not taken up the issue in court, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. I heard the news that the owner of the company (Oreva, responsible for bridge’s maintenance) has fled. I hope he gets punished and small officials aren’t made a scapegoat,” he adds.
Satish Rohitbhai Zala lost nine members of his family in the incident, including two sisters, their husbands and his two-year-old son. A taxi driver, he has stopped working since the tragedy.
“There were holidays for Diwali so my relatives (sisters’ families) were visiting. Ten people from my family had gone to visit the reopened bridge that ill-fated day. Only one, my nine-year-old nephew survived. The government says 135 people died but we know the count is higher than that. I got Rs 8 lakh as compensation, out of which Rs 5 lakh was from the state government, Rs 2 lakh from the Central government and Rs 1 lakh from the royal family of Morbi. Officials from the civic body had told me that I am supposed to get an additional Rs 2 lakh. But I never made any rounds of government offices for money. What do I do with the money now, my entire family is gone,” says Satishbhai.
“I will not vote this year. What is the point? It was fated, so it happened. No political party can bring back my family,” he adds.
“I will vote for the BJP this year,” tells a family of a survivor of the accident. “Here in Morbi, people vote for the party that wins the civic polls. That way we can ensure better civic amenities for our area,” he adds.
BJP changes candidate
The tragedy seems to have made an impact only within the BJP so far, with the party replacing its sitting minister Brijesh Merja with Kantilal Amrutiya. Merja, a former Congress leader, had won the seat in the 2017 assembly elections defeating Amrutiya. In 2020, Merja resigned and joined the BJP, prompting a by-election that he won and was made a minister in the BJP government.
Amrutiya, a veteran BJP leader, won the seat for five consecutive terms from 1995 to 2012 until he lost in 2017 because of the Patidar agitation that swung votes in favour of the Congress. Noticeably, as the tragedy happened, Amrutiya was seen in a viral video, jumping into the Machhu river with a life jacket and trying to save people. Following which, the BJP declared him as a candidate for the constituency.
Little development in Morbi
Morbi, an erstwhile princely town, is known for its ceramic and clock industries that provide employment to more than five lakh people, most of whom are migrants. The industrial town in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat has barely seen any development in 27 years of BJP rule. Lack of schools, hospitals, primarily health centres and scarcity of irrigation water are perennial issues of the region.
The town is dominated by Patels (Patidars) most of whom are engaged in ceramic business. Amongst about 2.9 electoral population, there are 80,000 Patels, 35,000 Muslims, 30,000 Sathwara (OBC), 30,000 Dalits, 20,000 Koli Patels (OBC) and about 12,00 Ahirs (pastoral community considered OBC).
Traditionally, Patidars vote for BJP and OBC votes are divided in the Congress and BJP. However, this year, it is three-party fight with Aam Admi Party (AAP) fielding its candidate from the seat. Noticeably, all three parties – Congress, BJP and AAP — have fielded Patidar candidates.
AAP, the new entrant
“Last year the winning margin was very narrow. Merja had won due to the Patidar agitation that had created an anti-BJP sentiment amongst the Patels, especially the youth. This year, with AAP in the fray, a small swing in the votes may lead to unexpected results,” Pankaj Kantibhai Ransariya, AAP candidate from Morbi tells The Federal.
Ransariya, a Kadwa Patel by caste, is a ceramic businessman based in Morbi.
“This is the first time I have decided to join mainstream politics. In 2017, I was influenced by the Patdidar Anamat Andolan (Patidar agitation) though I had not participated directly. No party has attempted to address the issues facing Morbi, whether it is lack of schools, hospitals or issues in the ceramic industry. The advent of AAP may be a new phase in politics of Gujarat,” adds Ransariya.