The Gujarat High Court agreed to the Oreva Group's offer on Wednesday to pay compensation to the victims of the Morbi bridge collapse that left 135 dead and several injured but said it will "not absolve it of any liability".
Oreva Group (Ajanta Manufacturing Limited) was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the British-era suspension bridge on the Machchhu river that collapsed on October 30 last year, with a special investigation team formed by the state government citing several lapses on the part of the firm.
The company's lawyer Nirupam Nanavati told the division bench of Chief Justice Aravind Kumar and Justice Ashutosh Shastri, which is hearing a suo motu plea on the tragedy, that it maintained the cable-stayed structure as part of its "philanthropic activities" and not a "commercial venture".
The company, which was impleaded as a respondent in the case, offered to pay compensation to the families of the 135 deceased, 56 injured persons and seven orphaned children, to which the court directed it to file an affidavit and observed that such an act "would not absolve it of any liability, either directly or vicariously".
The company "fairly admits that payment of such compensation should in no way prejudice the rights of any other parties", the court said.
"We make it clear that the payment of compensation even by the 7th respondent (Oreva) to the victims or relatives should not absolve it of any liability either directly or vicariously," it said.
"It is also made clear that the proceedings initiated against the (Oreva) by other authorities namely the instrumentality of state, be it revenue or police authorities, shall be taken to its logical end without any reference to the payment of this compensation," the court further said.
It directed Oreva to deposit the amount with the state to enable them to take further steps in the matter.
"It was an old bridge, a heritage bridge. ...Some other entities - very, very highly posted, I do not want to name them - persuaded me to take over and maintain," Nanavati said in his submission on behalf of his client.
An arrest warrant has been issued against Managing Director of Oreva Jaysukh Patel, while he has filed for anticipatory bail plea in Morbi court.
The high court on Wednesday also pulled up the Morbi municipality and said it has failed to disclose in its affidavit "as to how the seventh respondent (Oreva Group) was permitted to use the bridge from December 29, 2021 till it was closed on March 7, 2022".
It said rival contentions showed that Oreva was "using the bridge despite there being no approval for its utilisation". "It would also emerge from the said affidavit that the agreement dated Mar 8, 2022, was not formally approved by the general body of the municipality," it said.
In an oral remark, it said an inference could be drawn that there was collusion between the civic body and Oreva.
In its affidavit on the condition of bridges, the state government said there are 23 bridges that require major repairs and 40 minor repairs. Work on 27 of these bridges is completed, it said.
The government also said there was a need for the formulation of a uniform policy with regard to the maintenance of bridges to be followed by the developmental authorities and such a policy is under active consideration.
The court directed the government to place on record any policy decision so taken in this regard. It also directed the state government to carry out work on "war footing" on the 23 bridges that require major repairs.
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