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Mumbai Billboard Collapse: Death Toll Rises to 14, Owner Absconding

Mumbai Billboard Collapse: Death Toll Rises to 14, Owner Absconding

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NEW DELHI, May 14: A day after the deadly collapse of a 14,400 square foot billboard in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar in which 14 people were killed and 74 others injured after the creaking 100-foot metal structure, buffeted by strong winds, fell on and crushed a petrol station, a case has been filed against the owner of the advertising agency which set up the billboard.

The police said on Tuesday that case had been filed against Bhavesh Bhinde, the owner of Ego Media, for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Bhinde, who is no stranger to police cases, there are 23 lodged against him including a rape case, is on the run and his mobile phone switched off.

The aftermath of the horrible incident – search and rescue ops to save more people and, possibly, recover more bodies – continued into Tuesday afternoon, more than 21 hours after the collapse. Rescue ops included teams from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) as well as earth-movers from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and teams of emergency medical personnel. Gas-cutters have also been deployed, but there are concerns over using these, given the accident site is a petrol station.

The NDRF is using two cranes – each weighing 500 tons – to shift the metal debris and create tunnels into which rescue personnel can crawl and pull out those trapped inside. Chief Minister Eknath Shinde who on Monday visited the site of the tragedy and has announced ex-gratia of ₹ 5 lakh per death.

“It is a painful and sad incident… I visited the spot yesterday. The government will bear all expenses of people injured. ₹ 5 lakh as compensation will be given to the next of kin (and) strict action will be taken against the owner of the hoarding.”

President Droupadi Murmu has also reacted. She posted a statement on X (formerly Twitter), “News of several casualties due to the collapse of a hoarding in Ghatkopar area of Mumbai is extremely sad. I express my deepest condolences to the bereaved families. I pray for the speedy recovery of the injured and wish for the success of the relief and rescue operations.”

The hoarding collapse has also triggered a blame game. The BMC has declared the billboard – a 120 X 120 foot structure reportedly in the Limca Book of Records – was “illegal”, i.e., it did not give the advertising agency permission to erect that and other such structures. Also, according to officials, the BMC limits billboard sizes to 40 x 40 foot only.

“We have ordered action against all illegal hoardings in the city. We are starting today. A case has been filed in this case (as) this hoarding did not have permission. A complaint was also received that some trees had been cut so this hoarding could be visible. We have filed a case in this regard too,” BMC Commissioner Bhushan Gagrani told reporters.

However, the ad agency – Ego Media, which built four hoardings – each 100-150 metres from the other – on land leased by the Maharashtra government to the Police Welfare Corporation – is understood have to received ‘permission’ from the Assistant Commissioner of Police (Railways). The land had initially been given to the Government Railway Police, officials said.

The civic body has issued a notice demanding the hoardings still standing be taken down. The GRP, however, has pitched responsibility back to the civic body, saying it does not have the equipment to take the structures down and asked the BMC to act instead. In a statement, the GRP said then Mumbai Police Commissioner, Qaiser Khalid, had given permission – a 10-year lease on the land – to Ego Media.

A BMC official said the hoardings will be razed but offered no timeline.

Ad agency owner Bhinde had also contested the state election as an Independent candidate from the Mulund constituency in 2009 and, in his affidavit, he had said that there are 23 cases registered against him under the Mumbai Municipal Corporation Act and the Negotiable Instruments Act (for bounced cheques).

In January this year, a case of rape was registered against him at the Mulund Police Station and a charge-sheet has also been filed. Sources said Bhinde had bagged several contracts from the Indian Railways and the BMC for erecting hoardings and banners over the years and has violated the rules of both organisations several times. He and others in his company are also named as accused in tree-poisoning and tree-cutting cases.

The hoarding which fell on the fuel station in Ghatkopar on Monday was a 120X120-foot structure – so big that it made it to the Limca Book of Records – and the BMC has said it does not allow billboards over 40X40 feet in size. While Bhinde’s agency has claimed it had received permission from the Assistant Commissioner of Police (Railways), BMC officials have said a nod from the municipal corporation is also necessary for all billboards in areas under its jurisdiction.

BMC Additional Commissioner Sudhakar Shinde said, “The BMC has written to the authorities several times and said our permission is not being taken for erecting billboards. We were told, citing various Acts, that our nod was not needed. The matter is being heard by the Supreme Court now. An inquiry will reveal where the lapses occurred. The BMC’s current priority is taking care of the people who were injured.”

(Manas Dasgupta)



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