Construction Firm Accused in India Overpass Collapse


Death Toll Rises in Kolkata

Rescue operations in Kolkata enter the final phase after an under-construction overpass fell on Thursday. The number of dead is up to 24, according to police, with at least 89 injured.

By ANI VIA REUTERS on Publish Date April 1, 2016.

Photo by Bikas Das/Associated Press.

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KOLKATA, India — The police in Kolkata on Friday filed a criminal complaint of culpable homicide and criminal breach of trust against the company that was building an elevated highway that collapsed on Thursday, and then detained eight of the company’s executives.

As rescue workers continued to look through the rubble and cut into trapped vehicles with blowtorches and other equipment, the company, IVRCL, came under intense scrutiny, with reports that it had run into problems with at least two states and a publicly owned company under the Indian Ministry of Railways.

At least 23 people were killed in the accident in the crowded Ganesh Talkies area of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, and 85 people were injured, the police said. Five hundred people in various rescue capacities were working at the site Friday night, said a Kolkata police sergeant, S. Satgava, adding, “We cannot tell how many more are trapped.” One person was rescued Friday evening, he said.

Early on Saturday morning, rescuers removed what they said was the last body from the rubble.

Television footage from the scene of the collapse showed cranes lifting steel plates, bulldozers clearing concrete rubble and workers cutting metal slabs into smaller pieces to lift them out of the wreckage. Part of the highway was twisted and hanging down, said Sandeep Channan, an official with the National Disaster Response Force, and engineers were working to stabilize it.


Relatives mourned a victim of the overpass collapse on Friday, a day after the disaster in Kolkata killed at least 23.

Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One local man observing the scene wondered out loud how residents could feel safe living under the structure if the project resumed after this accident.

IVRCL is a major construction company carrying out irrigation, road, mining and power projects across India, as well as in Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Africa. At a news conference on Friday in Hyderabad, where the company is based, officials said they were shocked by the episode but refused to comment on the police complaint, saying they had not seen it.

K. Panduranga Rao, the group head of human resources and administration at IVRCL, said in a telephone interview that he was not the appropriate person to comment on punitive actions taken against his company, but also refused to refer questions to anyone else.

There were numerous questions about the company, and no shortage of critics. Derek O’Brien, a spokesman for the state of West Bengal, which includes Kolkata, said the company had been barred from doing business in the state of Uttar Pradesh. He said the police had detained six company officials in Kolkata and two in Hyderabad for questioning.

“The company has a bad reputation,” he told the news agency ANI. “The law will take its own course. No one will be spared.”

Satish Agnihotri, the chairman and managing director of Rail Vikas Nigam Limited, the publicly owned company under the Railways Ministry, called IVRCL “a major defaulter.” In a telephone interview, he said his company had terminated its contracts with IVRCL over the past three years because of poor performance.

“They were working with us, with our company, and because of their lack of performance, or because of their poor performance, we terminated their contracts,” he said.

IVRCL would be forbidden to bid on any further contracts for two years after the last termination, he added. Mr. Agnihotri said his company had also cashed in performance guarantees for several of IVRCL’s projects, although he could not recall the penalty amounts.

Chandreshwar Prasad Singh, the minister of urban development, housing and transportation in the state of Jharkhand, said in an interview that his state had blacklisted IVRCL in February because of delays in finishing projects that included laying pipelines for drinking water and putting up electrical wires in eight rural districts.

“Such companies need to know that it is a question both of quality and quantity,” said Mr. Singh, who in February took to the floor of the State Assembly to accuse the company of cheating the government. They need to know that projects “must be finished in a time-bound manner,” he added. “IVRCL failed on all accounts.”

“What happens, or should happen with blacklisting, is that other states sit up and take note of the company’s image and do not award any future projects as well,” Mr. Singh said.

But that seems not to have happened, probably because government contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder once basic technical criteria have been met, finance experts said.

They said that the infrastructure industry in India was under stress, and that among its biggest weakness was in the management of complex construction projects, like the elevated highway that collapsed in Kolkata.

West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, told The Press Trust of India, a news agency, that IVRCL had been awarded the contract for the highway in 2009, under a previous administration.

Bureaucratic and other delays hampered the project from the start. The company said on its website that the project was among its toughest, cutting through a crowded neighborhood and requiring heavy machinery. Construction time was limited to six hours a day.

The company had been struggling with debt. After a restructuring plan fell apart early this year, banks that were its largest debtors converted their debt into equity, taking control of the company, The Press Trust of India reported.

Correction: April 1, 2016

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article and its headline referred incorrectly to the action taken by the police in Kolkata, India, against the company that was building an elevated highway that collapsed. The police filed a criminal complaint against the company: they did not formally charge the company.

Correction: April 2, 2016

An earlier version of this article misspelled, in one reference, the surname of the chairman and managing director of Rail Vikas Nigam Limited. As the article correctly noted elsewhere, he is Satish Agnihotri, not Aghnihotri.

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