The slab that fell (and the story it told)

Black of grackles glints purple as, wheeling in sun-glare,
The flock splays away to pepper the blueness of distance.
Soon they are lost in the tracklessness of air.
I watch them go. I stand in my trance.
Another year gone... 

Am reminded, all of a sudden, of this poem by Robert Penn Warren. 2021 is flickering to a close. Unless something extraordinary happens, my last report for 2021 is done. And I am looking forward to going off the internet, kicking the phone aside, and spending the next ten or so days in relative isolation, reading for pleasure. As in the past, seeking enchantment, I have returned to reading on evolution. I read Metazoa, to grasp how sentience developed in the early life-forms. And then, casting the net farther back in time, trying to understand how life itself began, I read Seven Clues To The Origin of Life. Next up, Nick Lane’s The Vital Question. And then, we will see.

2021 has not been a good year. I have lost two wonderful friends — Debjeet Sarangi and Anirban Bora. The world has also lost gentle, erudite Keshav Desiraju. Mythili Sivaraman passed away as well. Professionally too, in terms of work done, the year has been subpar. A lot of relatively analytic reports, almost all of them on energy — the year started with Coal, moved to Solar, Net Zero and then the warps and wefts of our energy transition — but almost nothing investigative.

Much of the year passed in this welter, one of knowing the work is nowhere near what it needs to be. I have to do a better job of balancing the two in 2022.

On now to the report I filed — about Lakshadweep and DDDNH administrator Praful Patel.

The news leaked late on the night of August 19 this year.

A slab had collapsed at the Namo Medical Education and Research Centre, a medical college and hostel being built at Silvassa by Praful Patel, administrator of the combined Union territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu.

Word had taken time to trickle out. “The slab fell around three in the morning,” a local reporter told The Wire. “No one was told. And then, a local leader of the LJP (Lok Janashakti Party) went there and got a photo.” By the next morning, pictures of the site were in wider circulation

It was a puzzling event. Barring strikingly bad design or construction, as a bureaucrat in the Union Territory administration told this reporter, slabs do not fall during construction. Making things odder yet, the slab had fallen in a UT whose administrator has a background in civil construction and, furthermore, is known for pushing projects. As an IAS officer in Diu had told The Wire in May, “The first thing he does on reaching a new place is to ask, ‘What are the pending construction projects?’”

A key aide of Narendra Modi when he was chief minister, Praful Patel was made Daman & Diu administrator when Modi became prime minister in 2014 and heads the joint UT. He was also placed in charge of Lakshadweep last year.

There were other aspects about the Silvassa collapse that were even odder. For a government project, the local Public Works Department did not have much of a role. The Namo Medical Education and Research Centre had been designed by none other than HCP Design, Planning and Management, the architectural firm owned by Bimal Patel, who has worked on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship architectural projects like the Sabarmati riverfront and the Vishwanath Dham redevelopment at Varanasi, and now the controversial redevelopment of the Central Vista in New Delhi.

Project construction was being monitored by Torsion Engineers & Consultants, an Ahmedabad-based firm. Construction had been entrusted to Shanti Construction, also headquartered in Ahmedabad. Both Shanti and Torsion had incorporated themselves into LLPs in the same year after winning their respective tenders. The first became Shanti Procon LLP on April 27, 2020. The second on November 5, 2020.

In the past, Patel has called his civil construction drive ‘developmentalism’ and labelled critics as “vested interests”. When the slab fell, it created a crack through which this claim could be tested. And so, this report took a look at the mechanics of civil construction under him. Do read.

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