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Gave jobs to women, built infra — why Oreva was revered in Gujarat’s Morbi, until tragedy struck

Oreva took up the task to maintain and manage the bridge that was 'pride of Morbi'. The group also set up a hospital, school and contributed to local and state irrigation schemes.

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Morbi, Gujarat: Oreva, a Gujarat-based business group, has been in the news for its role in the upkeep of a suspension bridge in Morbi which collapsed Sunday, resulting in at least 135 deaths. Some reports put the death toll at 141. 

The tragedy has spurred questions about why the bridge, which had been under repair for the past seven months, was reopened for public use before the municipality could issue a ‘fitness certificate’ as was claimed Monday by Morbi chief municipal officer Sandeep Jhala.

The group was tasked with maintaining and managing the bridge for 15 years as part of a contract it signed with the Morbi municipality in March 2022. Further, locals and business owners say Oreva, as a benefactor, contributed to many charitable projects in Morbi and took up the task to maintain and manage the colonial-era bridge in a similar vein.

At the time of the bridge’s reopening on 26 October (Gujarati New Year), group chairman Jaysukh Patel had told the media that Oreva had spent Rs 2 crore on repairs.

ThePrint reached Oreva’s offices in Rajkot and Ahmedabad via phone calls but did not receive a response at the time of publication. This report will be updated when a response is received.

The tragic incident has put a spotlight on Oreva which is largely credited with helping Morbi grow from a village to a bustling town by setting up industries and employing locals.

The Oreva group had stepped in and taken up the task of maintaining the bridge when the Morbi municipality did not have enough funds for its maintenance, claimed a local businessman who wished to not be named.

“Being a heritage landmark, the bridge was seen as the pride of the village, which is why Oreva decided to pay for its upkeep. Since the bridge was one of the few tourist attractions for the people of Morbi and neighbouring villages, they (Oreva) wanted to keep it functional,” he told ThePrint.

The businessman added that the bridge was closed for a whole year in 2007 before the contract for its maintenance was first given to Oreva in 2008. According to one report, the group also wrote to the Morbi district collector in January 2020, seeking a permanent contract for the maintenance and management of the suspension bridge over Machchhu river.

The contract Oreva signed with the Morbi municipality in March this year entitled the company to increase the price of admission by Rs 2 annually.

“Tickets were priced at Rs 15-20, an amount which would have barely made any difference to the owners of such a big company. They simply wanted to give the people of Morbi a place of entertainment and pride,” said the local businessman.

But a number of local business owners said they were surprised to see how such a tragedy took place under Oreva’s supervision. “We know the (Patel) family has always had good intentions at heart but the fact that there were no security guards deployed at the bridge took us all by surprise. We did not expect such poor management from them,” said a ceramic goods dealer based out of Morbi.

Also Read: The ‘ruckus’ that led to Gujarat’s Morbi bridge collapse & the challenges facing rescue teams

Oreva — jobs, hope for locals

The Oreva group, also known as Ajanta Manufacturing Pvt Ltd, was founded in 1971 by Odhavji R. Patel, primarily as a wall clock manufacturing enterprise, and eventually forayed into electronics, ceramics, textiles, transport and machinery. The group, which set up some of the first manufacturing units in Morbi, is now run by Odhavji’s son Jaysukh Patel, who industrialists close to the family describe as a ‘media savvy’ businessman.

By 2013, the group’s turnover had reportedly exceeded the Rs 1,000 crore mark largely due to its wall clock, calculator and e-bike businesses. In 2008, Oreva had even looked into manufacturing a compact, four-wheel drive to rival the Tata Nano but the project never took off. 

According to industry sources, Oreva also tried to invest in Morbi’s flourishing ceramic industry between 2007 and 2011 but the foray was short-lived.

Recalling the early ’90s, when local women had no sources of income, Morbi Ceramic Association president Mukesh K. said the Oreva group hired an all-women team to manage one of their primary factories.

“I remember that they (Oreva) provided pick and drop bus services for their women employees and aided all staffers who were getting married. This happened at a time when water scarcity hit farmers the hardest. The initiative was unheard of and brought them a lot of goodwill in the village,” he said.

The group even set up the Sadbhavna Hospital in Morbi and the Oreva private school in Tankara. For years, Oreva also contributed to local and state irrigation schemes for Morbi’s farmers, said Mukesh.

In July 2019, a meeting of the Central Water Commission, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and 18 other departments was convened to discuss the Rann Sarovar project conceptualised by Oreva chairman Jaysukh Patel. The project is aimed at preventing seawater from entering the Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) to ensure that the accumulated freshwater does not turn salty.

‘BJP pushed Oreva to inaugurate bridge quickly’

Tankara MLA and working president of the Gujarat Congress, Lalit Kagathara, has blamed the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the bridge’s collapse. “The BJP wanted to make a statement in Morbi by inaugurating the bridge on Diwali to gather clout for the upcoming elections. They kept pushing the group (Oreva) to inaugurate the bridge as soon as possible. Had they not pushed for it and given them time to finish, this incident would not have happened,” he told ThePrint.

ThePrint reached Morbi MLA Brijesh Merja of the BJP via phone call for a response but he was unavailable. This report will be updated when a response is received.

Meanwhile, Gujarat Police have launched a probe to fix accountability for the bridge collapse but locals in Morbi believe the tragic incident may have forever maligned the legacy of Oreva’s founder and local philanthropist Odhavji Patel.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: ‘Kept calling but nobody came’: Morbi bridge survivors’ stories of terror & abandonment


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