Early this March, towards the end of an unexpectedly helpful telephone conversation, an officer of the Kolkata Police offered lessons on how to tell a good lie. He was speaking about the bridge that had fallen in Kolkata a year ago. On March 31, 2016, an under-construction flyover collapsed, crushing 26 people to death and injuring 20. More than a year later, the criminal trial into the accident has yet to begin. The 16 people arrested are all out on bail.
The Kolkata Police, who are in charge of the investigation, have not filed the complete charge sheet. Court proceedings can only commence when this is done. The story had fallen out of the news cycle; an anniversary was a good occasion to remember how more than two dozen people died going about their daily lives.
What was the progress in the investigation? How can a bridge fall like that? How does a public infrastructure project fall prey to such criminal negligence? The police and the state prosecution team have refused to disclose anything. This officer, however, was sharing disturbing findings from the police investigation: failed steel samples, unapproved drawings, a phantom Chinese company. Then came the restriction.
“You cannot quote me in your report”, the officer said.
“I could quote from the charge sheet then”, I said.
“There is no question of sharing the charge sheet”, he said quickly. “What you could do”, he said after a moment, “is to write that you have seen the charge sheet. A charge sheet is a public document. Anybody has the right to see it.”
“The police in India have an unfortunate reputation of planting misleading information. On March 21, the Times of India carried a story about a student of a premier Indian university being an Islamic State sympathiser. The story hinted at police information. But the Delhi police denied this line of investigation, and the paper had to carry a corrigendum apologising for the story. Taking government authorities at their word is high-risk behaviour.”
No matter what the law said, it was clear that the police would not share the charge sheet. This was no usual investigation. Even in a country where failures of essential infrastructure are not uncommon, this is a horrific case. There have been train accidents that have claimed more lives, but those are caused by ageing infrastructure. The Kolkata flyover involved yet-to-be-used infrastructure. The caving in of a new bridge in Delhi in the run-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games had thankfully caused zero casualties; a flyover collapse in Hyderabad in 2007 left two dead. Kolkata was a different scale of devastation, and disgrace. The news – particularly the photograph – made it to the front pages of several international news organisations including the The New York Times.
“It is like an act of God”, said AGK Murthy, operations director for IVRCL, on the day of the accident. IVRCL is the company constructing the flyover. Ten of the 16 people charged are from the firm. “The glass was shattered. It could have been a blast”, said IVRCL’s legal adviser Sheela Peddinti two days later.
As of today, the company carries only a press release on its website, “grieving” the incident. IVRCL ignored email and telephone requests for a response.
The government maintained an equally stoic silence. Emails, phone calls, text messages went unanswered. Days turned into weeks. Effectively, the story was being killed by the silence of the main parties concerned. Only one possibility remained – the Right to Information Act (RTI). In 2005, the Indian government passed the act giving citizens the right to secure information from “public authorities”. It is an exceptionally empowering democratic right, similar to the Freedom of Information Act in Britain, particularly in India where government departments are notoriously slow and corrupt. The well-known activist and former bureaucrat Harsh Mander has called the RTI “one of the most important laws for accountability and transparency”. However, the RTI applies only to government bodies – private entities are exempt
FAILED STEEL, UNAPPROVED DRAWINGS
Three RTI appeals were made to access the charge sheet – the official record of the charges made against the accused. It was indeed, as the police officer had said, a public document. But only 50 pages of a charge sheet that runs into thousands of pages were provided, with no explanation given for the piecemeal sanction.
Still, even this limited access offered a picture of widespread malpractice, right from the top and right from the beginning. First, the police found evidence that steel samples used in the flyover’s construction had failed two standardised tests.
Second, a Chinese company called CR18G was identified as the dominant partner in the contract for the project, bearing responsibility for 70 per cent of the work. IVRCL was assigned 30 per cent responsibility. In reality, the police found that CR18G did not attend even a single meeting.
Third, the police allege that the design of the flyover was based on an unapproved drawing. Protocol requires drawings for government-funded projects to be vetted by an independent expert. A certain draft was sent for verification and approved, but the design was based on an unchecked draft.
How does a public infrastructure project proceed with the use of failed steel samples, unapproved drawings and a phantom company?
These findings are listed on the official record of the investigation. The record of a government investigation should, by its very nature, be accessible to the public – in a democracy, the government represents the people.
Yet the police and state agencies withheld this information from the press. It took several RTI appeals – and one fortunate approval – to unlock this public information. Even this permit secured very limited access to the charge sheet. In spite of the RTI, government documents remain remote and elusive.
A report in the Times of India noted that 56 RTI activists had been killed as of 2016. There were 311 episodes of “harassment, including murder, assault and intimidation” for using the RTI, according to the Delhi office of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. In April, the Indian government proposed a worrying change to the rules: RTI applications would no longer be answered if the applicant passed away. It seems ominous – if an RTI appeal dies with the applicant, doesn’t that make it neater, cleaner, easier somehow?
There’s also the bloodless, and deadly, bureaucracy of the Indian state. In an email, former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi wrote about how delayed appointments of information officers are beginning to slow down the process of RTI inquiries. Responses must be provided within 30 days, and this timeliness is one of the chief charms of the RTI. Many government departments also do not list the names of their information officers. As a result, inquiries cannot be correctly addressed. An increasingly common experience is to receive a response saying the inquiry is incorrectly addressed. Technically, this counts as a response.
The cycle of sending out inquiries, and hoping for the correct department to respond, can continue indefinitely. Perhaps this is why the police officer offered lessons on how to lie – he knew the score. He knew the RTI stands little chance against the mighty bureaucracy of the Indian state. But then, it’s possible to get lucky. Unexpectedly, randomly, blindly lucky.