The new bridge is ready and a new road leads to it. Every person in the village has turned up for the grand inauguration. The corrupt, power-hungry panchayat president Dushashan Kurup has decided to inaugurate the bridge with his daughter’s wedding procession. His equally corrupt, scheming rival, Ishak Tharakan, is also there. Between them, they have turned the bridge into a cash cow, demolishing a perfectly good one and building a new one with cheap, substandard material and taking bribes from contractors.
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As you might have guessed, this is a scene from a movie—Malayalam filmmaker K.G. George’s hilarious and acclaimed political spoof Panchavadi Palam which hit the screens in Kerala in 1984, almost 40 years ago. As the entire village of Panchavadi loads onto the bridge, the audience knew what was bound to happen because we had watched all the machinations of the corrupt people involved and laughed at their idiosyncrasies. And so, we laughed as the bridge cracked and they all toppled into the water and came out dripping wet and angry. The only person who died was a poor disabled man, Kathavrayan, who could not escape the falling debris.
In the years since, many real bridges have collapsed as corrupt contractors collude with corrupt politicians and the bureaucracy. The shenanigans of politicians and contractors, which we chuckled at on screen, are now familiar in real life, and are no laughing matter. Less than 10 days ago, about 135 people, including children, died when the newly-renovated Morbi suspension bridge for pedestrians collapsed. It had reopened just five days earlier.
In Kerala, three years after it was built in 2016, the 750m Palarivattom flyover developed cracks and in 2019, it was deemed too unsafe to use and shut. An investigation team found that not enough material had been used during the construction, making it unstable. The flyover had cost more than Rs47 crore, a part of which the contractor had used to bail himself out of a financial crisis. Multiple arrests were made, including of the then minister for public works. It was demolished in 2020, and a new one built by 2021 at a cost of over Rs18 crores. The Kerala High Court, while commenting on the scam, compared it to Panchavadi Palam.
Both these incidents reflect the state of public infrastructure across the country. Bengaluru, where I live, is known for its bad roads and pavements, potholes and half-built flyovers. A contractor, who died by suicide a few months ago, left a note accusing a minister’s associates of demanding a 40% commission on every contract. His death shone a light once more on the well-entrenched “commission system” that ensures everyone from the official on the street to the one in the highest office gets a share of a bribe. Civic works seem to have become a cash generator for politicians and contractors alike.
In Panchavadi Palam, there are no heroes. In keeping with the tone of the film, the characters are all caricature villains whose greed is amusingly naïve. All of them escape, and, as happens in real life, only the weakest person who has no hand in creating the disaster dies. When I met George soon after the film’s release, he told me, “I take a look at panchayat-level politics, but it is actually a depiction of the political scene in the country.” His film depicted villainy in a microcosm. And now, as we await the court’s verdict on the Morbi tragedy—the Gujarat High Court has filed a suo motu public interest litigation and sought a report by 14 November—I wonder if there will be a clear answer. Maybe, as in Panchavadi Palam, there will be no heroes but only those who die and those who fish out the dead or rescue the injured.
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