In Morbi And Other Bridge Collapses, An Important Lesson For Engineering Education And Practice In India

  • Morbi’s Jhulto Pul accident will surely be investigated in detail, with both the human and engineering dimensions scrutinised.

    Here we look at an important, but unappreciated, dimension which relates to the state of engineering practice as a profession as well as engineering education.

A 12-story residential building collapsed last year, killing 98 people. The building was not from a “third-world country”; it was a beachfront property in Florida, the United States (US), until about mid-2021.

A hanging walkway collapsed, claiming the lives of 114 people and injuring 216. No, this was not in Morbi, but in Missouri, the US. The year was 1981 and it was a walkway in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which had barely opened a year ago.

A section of the newly inaugurated terminal of an airport collapsed, killing four. This was Terminal 2E of the Charles de Gaulle Airport of Paris, France. The year was 2004.

Bridges and buildings are structures that stand in plain sight and become part of the landscape and popular memory over generations. We tend to see them as immortal — things that will stand any abuse.

However, typical to structures is the aspect that if anything goes very wrong, it will give way while being built. For instance, a part of the roof of the Hyatt Regency Hotel fell while it was being constructed in October 1979.

This incident preceded the infamous skywalk collapse, which occurred just a year after the hotel opened in 1980.

Sadly, because we are ‘drowned’ in the fruits of engineering, we as a society start to take these structures for granted. Gradually, this casual approach permeates to the levels where decisions are made or influenced.

Perhaps, this is human psychology. Living and working in multistoried buildings, driving over bridges, travelling through tunnels — we never even think that the floor might give in or the roof might fall on our heads.

Morbi’s Jhulto Pul

The accident at Morbi is not a case of a design that went egregiously wrong; it was the opposite.

The structure proudly held itself up for more than a century; for about 140 years, to be more precise.

The 1.25-metre-wide suspension bridge spanned over Machchhu River and connected the Darbargadh Palace with the Nazarbaug Palace, the two palaces on either side of the river. It appears then that the bridge was meant, and thus designed, for light use.

The Nazarbaug Palace was donated in 1951 by the erstwhile rulers of Morbi as a way to upgrade the Morbi Technology Institute to a full-fledged engineering college. That Jhulto Pul was in physical proximity to an engineering college since the early 1950s makes this failure poignant.

After all, the college has civil engineering and applied mechanics departments.

The accident report will come out with the managerial and technical components of the failure. That such a thing happened at the doorstep of an engineering college indicates that the problem lies deeper.

Hyatt Skywalk Failure

More than a hundred people died and over 200 injured when the glass-and-concrete skywalk in the Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed in 1981.

The skywalk was delivered as a fast-tracked project where the design and construction phases overlapped. It emerged that there was a huge error of the key structure not being designed but rather just given as a sketch or as a concept which then ultimately got fabricated.

Delegation of responsibility, change of ownership, and subcontracting meant that the most critical structural element, which was not amenable to visual inspection, was delivered with hardly any capacity to hold the dead weight of the structure.

As the causes were quickly established — engineers widely discussed the case — it was widely agreed that this was a case that should be part of academic training lest important lessons are lost. (This report from 2001, two decades after the accident, is an engaging read.)

Indian Practice

Unlike other structures one comes across in our country, Indian Railways’ structures are owned and maintained by the government body itself.

The Indian Railways’ engineering team ensures that bridges are used within their design envelope and a rigid regimen of inspections occur while maintaining structured reporting.

This has created a body of knowledge which underwrites confidence of a passenger to travel over culverts and mighty rivers.

The Railways’ civil engineers rightly take pride in this aspect and do a lot of self-reflection and correction when mistakes happen.

In his book, Stories That Bridge, practising railway engineer Vivek Bhushan Sood walks the lay reader through case upon case where he discusses how assumptions can go wrong and how situational awareness gets lost in the complexity of bridge inspections and repairs.

Seen from the eyes of a bridge inspector, Sood takes the reader through several aspects of bridge engineering. His stories bring forth how a ‘keen eye’ gets developed, why there is a need for a ‘routine’ in inspections, which he brings out as the best antidote to casualness, something that inevitably creeps in if left unchecked.

It is time that, like management schools, engineering education begins to pay attention to case studies, with a focus on failures.

Engineers are now practically working in every segment of the economy; surely, such case studies, like the Jatak kathas, would stick in the memory of many, even as they forget their engineering education. This is the rationale of Stories That Bridge.

Unlike management case studies, engineering case studies have been more widely available, usually without any cost, as engineers have taken it up as a professional duty to report, publish, and explain failures.

Sadly, the culture of teaching with engineering cases is absent in India.

Morbi Bridge

Morbi Bridge

Heralding A Cultural Shift In Education

The disconnect between academics and practising engineers is nearly total with just a few exceptions.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) recently issued guidelines to engage “professors of practice.” This was done precisely to bridge the gap wherein fieldwork or practice can be considered in lieu of publications and a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy).

While academics bring in theoretical and academic rigour, professors of practice teach with a dirt-under-the-nail approach. This was long-resisted by academia.

Even now, the guarded language of the policy has a hint of the historical bias of academia against field hands without publications and a PhD degree.

However, the guidelines have been notified finally, and it would be incumbent on academia to welcome professors of practice in their midst.

Further, the need for publications in ‘high impact factor’ journals changes the bias of the problems being studied.

The Prime Minister’s refrain has been that Indian problems need Indian solutions, drawn from our own materials and experience.

The ‘prestigious’ journals invariably tend to be foreign journals. Often, their editors hold biases towards research interests of their own ecosystem.

For one to get a PhD, one needs a certain number of publications in ‘high impact factor’ journals. And for one to be recruited or promoted, the same requirement has to be met.

This protocol starts to guide the choice of research topics — why should a Jhulto Pul be a subject of study by faculty if there is no institutional incentive for such an activity?

Hence, one would not be surprised if Morbi’s Jhulto Pul was never an object of study of local engineering colleges. How did talented civil and mechanical engineers of Morbi’s engineering college, which sat on the other end of Jhulto Pul, not envisage making this landmark structure an object of their inquiry?

The short answer is, incentivisation biases make our colleges focus on problems that are publication-worthy in ‘high impact factor’ journals and not on those which are relevant to the local population.

The framework of the National Education Policy 2020 is eminently suitable to bring in a new culture of training, skilling, and education that is in sync with the needs of an economy investing heavily in engineering systems — an essential step to shed the tag of an ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’ nation.

Further, engineering institutions need a greater incentive to move from publication- and conference-centred work. Evaluation of academia should also include accident or failure investigations, how local infrastructure is captured, and how active are academics in the framing of standards.

How relevant are the design problems chosen for teaching and solving should be factored in too. To remove possible biases, engineers of leading government agencies should evaluate biases to generate a score which can be used for recruitment and promotions.

Initiatives like the ‘professor of practice’, reworking of curriculums, attempts to move from publication-centred academia to a problem-solving approach will surely usher a long-term cultural change, in sync with needs of a developed economy that we are poised to become in the amrit kaal.

Practising Engineer Vs Others, A Perspective

There is a world of difference between the perspective of a practising engineer and of someone who has studied engineering but not practised it. The two cannot be conflated.

The Challenger disaster of January 1986 brings to fore the saliency of the perspective. The ill-fated shuttle launch should not have taken place.

The engineers of the American company Thiokol, who were responsible for the solid rocket motor component that eventually failed (two slender white rockets on either side of the space shuttle) and caused the shuttle to explode unreservedly, recommended that the launch should be aborted.

There was a lot of pressure on this team which had to take a call to abort or go ahead with launch.

The vice president of engineering, upon whose view the decision rested, also said no for launch. But he was then nudged by his boss, a senior vice president, who suggested that he keep aside his engineer’s hat and think like a manager.

In a high-pressure environment, this change of perspective made the vice president agree to the launch. He went against his own earlier advice as an engineer!

Why is this important? India is investing heavily in large-scale infrastructure. This will support a large number of vehicles on road, rail, water, and space, bringing forth a highly complex and dynamic interplay of these components.

Therefore, educators and administrators need to bring in a cultural change of respecting professionals. And professionals should culturally internalise failures, for which a revisit of pedagogy as followed in our engineering colleges is needed.