Syndicate Raj and its woes in Bengal

The recent flyover collapse in the heart of Kolkata has generated much hype among people. While the loss of lives is tragic indeed and it w...

The recent flyover collapse in the heart of Kolkata has generated much hype among people. While the loss of lives is tragic indeed and it would be generic to say that our prayers are with the bereaved families, there is an unexplored, dormant facet that needs some serious introspection. It is an issue that has got media mentions, but (unfortunately enough) failed to garner enough attention to wipe out the plaguing problem. The syndicate business is one of the most lucrative business in Bengal for anyone with political affiliations with the ruling party. That explains how Rajat Bakshi, an aide of the local Trinamool leader Sanjay Bakshi, got his hands into the construction team for the Vivekananda flyover. The menace has been there for a long time, and looks set for an exponential boom without any stringent checks in place.

For starters, 'syndicate' means an organization to promote a common interest. In the context of Bengal, it is the construction syndicates that is widely talked about. These syndicates, owned by people with proper channel to political hotshots, control much of the work at the construction sites in the cities. It is not only limited to Kolkata, but has spread manifold across Bengal, ranging from Siliguri to Malda, Santiniketan to Kolkata, and Kolkata to Digha. As irony would have it, a judge of the Calcutta High Court was compelled to make an observation that even the judiciary is not independent of the syndicate problem. However, that is only a surface-level, rudimentary idea. The trouble is in the fact that these syndicates force the constructors to purchase inferior quality raw materials, and employ unskilled and untrained labour, at an exorbitant price.

Available records from the IVRCL's duty chart shows that "Sandhya Ent" (presumably Sandhyamani Projects, owned by Mr. Bakshi) had been deputed for channel dismantling work from Pier 25 to Pier 26 of the bridge. A report in The Telegraph mentions that most workers have no idea of building a bridge. They were there just because they had been asked to. An earlier report states how a few of the piers juts out dangerously, over the balconies of several adjacent houses that line the flyover. Local observers have also remarked that ever since the collapse of the flyover, pier number thirty one has shifted six inches from its normal position.

The above picture reveals the displacement of the pier from the welded iron bracket to hold it in place. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya.

It is laughable that the police have slapped murder charges on the IVRCL officials. After all, the fault is that of the state administration, and it so appears prima facie. Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister, made an impromptu, and rather callous a statement at the accident venue that the project was flagged off during the Left regime. It is despicable that instead of focusing her priorities on the rescue operations, the first statement that she had to make was seasoned with a political dagger veiled in words. As everyone knows by now, IVRCL is one of those companies blacklisted by several Central agencies and State governments, due to misappropriation of funds. If Mamata was so very ecstatic to blame the Left, why did she not initiate action for cancellation of the tender grant to IVRCL once in power in 2011? Is the loss of a few crores for pending damages from the state coffers worth more than the responsibility to safeguard the lives of many?

There must be immediate legislation put in place to ensure that further mishaps as this does not recur in future. While it is easier said than done, the political guns must shed their greed for money, or at the least, ensure that promoters and constructors do not face any harassment by the syndicates. When the building company is willing to pay more for better services, why should they be restricted by people who look to serve their own interests? While most agencies have concentrated on the external problems, a probe into the CMDA's (Calcutta Municipal Development Authority) authority reveals that the institution is run almost single-handedly by Firhad Hakim, the minister in charge for urban development and planning. Sincere IAS officers, who insisted to having verifications on the background of the tender company, were promptly transferred to some other irrelevant department. Hakim perhaps did not wish to get caught in the paperwork mess.

On a personal front, I do not presume that the ramifications of the flyover collapse would resonate beyond Calcutta and it's suburban adjoining areas. For voters from rural Bengal, all that matters is two square meals a day, a shelter, and some money. Moreover, the intimidation tactics long used by the local leaders might also play a vital role in propelling the TMC to a win. In tune with the opinion polls, I would prognosticate a win for the ruling party, albeit by a tight margin in many constituencies. It is lamentable that the opposition has united against the Trinamool to not fight against its vices, but with a condemnable intention to boost their political mileage for the assembly elections.

P.S: I have not mentioned about the police's role in all this at all... They are, after all, "spineless", as Justice Dipankar Datta befittingly pointed out- and I don't like to rub salt on the wounds.

Affixed note: This post is not intended to malign the reputation of the Chief Minister of Bengal, or her aides and ministers in any possible way. This is a reflection of the thoughts of the urban society formed as a subsequent build-up to the Vivekananda Flyover Collapse. 

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