As Kerala flyover goes down, politicians and bureaucrats face heat

Shaju Philip
The Palarivattom flyover will be partially demolished.

Panchavadi Palam, a 1984 Malayalam movie adapted from the story Palam Apakadathilanu (the bridge is in danger), was a political satire on how corruption and vested interests contributed to bringing down a bridge. Thirty-five years later, Kerala is rewinding to that classic as a flyover in Kochi is slated for demolition barely three years after it was opened to traffic. With the flyover controversy snowballing, it threatens to bring down with it senior bureaucrats, politicians and many others, including the Delhi-based contractor of the project.

The Rs 42-crore Palarivattom flyover along NH bypass was thrown open to traffic in October 2016, but had to be closed for repairs in May this year after it developed cracks. With the bridge unfit for use even after repair works, earlier this week, the government announced its decision to partially demolish the flyover and construct a new one under the supervision of DMRC consultant and Metro Man E Sreedharan.

On August 30, the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau (VACB), which is probing the case, arrested retired IAS officer and former government secretary T O Sooraj; Sumit Goyal, Managing Director of the Delhi-based RDS Projects that was the contractor for the project; consulting firm KITCO s senior manager Benny Paul; and M T Thankachan, AGM Roads and Bridges Development Corporation Kerala (RBDCK), a subsidiary of the State Public Works Department, which was in charge of the execution of the project. All are in judicial custody until the first week of October.

The case is also threatening to lead up to the doors of Indian Union Muslim League leader V K Ibrahim Kunju, who was minister for public works when the deal for the flyover was inked, and IAS officer and Kochi Metro MD A P M Muhammed Hanish, who was then managing director of RBDCK.

After the cracks developed last year, the state government entrusted an expert team of IIT-Madras to look into the shoddily constructed bridge. The IIT team said that government agencies KITCO and RBDCK failed to monitor the work effectively. It is unfortunate that a flyover has to be rebuilt within three years…I have been tasked with technical supervision of the work, which will be completed in a year, said Sreedharan.

As the flyover was to be constructed along the NH bypass, the onus was on the National Highway Authority of India. But the Kerala Public Works Department, under the Congress-led UDF regime, decided to construct the flyover, claiming the state agency would complete the project faster.

Kerala public works minister G Sudhakaran said the Delhi-based contractor, RDS Projects, would be made liable to pay the cost of rebuilding of the flyover. The liability-defect period of the project is three years and hence the contractor will be made to pay the cost. We have already served him a notice, he said.

Kunju, the PWD minister in the earlier UDF government, who is in the dock for releasing an advance amount to the contractor, said such problems are usual in the construction sector. The mobilisation advance was allotted using the discretionary powers of a minister. I am ready to face the probe as I have nothing to hide, he said.

The Kerala Government Contractors Association has, however, come out against the arrest and judicial custody of Sumit Goyal, MD of RDS Projects. The contractor had already spent Rs 3 crore on repair works. It is an injustice that he was arrested and jailed even after that…, said association president Varghese Kannampally.