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Sandeep Sahu

By Sandeep Sahu

The all-too-familiar charade has started. It is sickening to watch the blame game by all responsible agencies after 10 persons travelling in a bus were electrocuted at Golanthara in Ganjam district on Sunday. Locals have blamed Southco for the eminently avoidable tragedy, saying they have repeatedly drawn the attention of the power utility to the urgency of raising the height of the 111 KV line. Southco, in turn, has blamed officials of the Rural Development (RD) department, saying it had repeatedly drawn their attention to the need to raise the height of the wires and submitted an estimate in this regard with the executive engineer, Ganjam RD division back July 4, 2018. At a higher level, the Transport department has blamed the Energy department. The Energy department, in turn, has washed its hands off and blamed the Rural Development department instead. All this passing of buck has left the people wondering who really is to blame for the loss of 10 precious lives.

There is a definite pattern to how the government and the authorities responsible for the safety of electrical installations respond to such tragedies. Announce an ex gratia for the victims, suspend a few low-level officials (who will be reinstated within a few weeks) and promise ‘strict action’ against the guilty, secure in the knowledge that the people will soon forget all about it – till the next such tragedy, that is. Had there been any desire to put an end to deaths due to sagging wires once and for all, they would have undertaken a time-bound exercise to raise the height of all low-lying high-voltage electric wires in the whole state after five bus passengers were charred to death at Puintala in Bolangir district in May 2013. Or after six more people travelling in a bus were electrocuted in Bhuban in Dhenkanal district in September 2016. Or after the driver and cleaner of a bus were killed after the bus came in contact with a live wire in Jeypore in April 2018. The fact that the authorities did nothing of the sort suggests that they couldn’t care less for human lives. As part of the well-rehearsed charade, the government has announced that all 11 KV lines in the state would be raised to a height of 20 feet as required under safety norms but has conveniently forgotten to fix a deadline for the completion of the exercise. Make no mistake. Hanging wires will remain hanging, endangering lives two, three years down the line and the charade will be repeated all over again after the next such tragedy!

This being the seriousness with which the Energy department views the loss of human lives, it is asking for the moon to expect it to do the needful in case of elephants. Remember the electrocution of seven elephants in Dhenkanal district in October 2018, one of the worst incidents of its kind in the whole country? A year and a half after the incident, thousands of meters of high-tension wires remain in sagging conditions, not just in Dhenkanal but all over the state, putting both humans and animals at grave risk of being electrocuted.

A look at the stats on deaths due to electrocution sends a chilling reminder of the gravity and spread of the problem and the sheer callousness of authorities. No less than 374 have died of electrocution between 2010 and 2019 in the area served by the Central Electric Supply Utility (CESU), the largest of the distribution companies (discoms), alone! You can extrapolate the figure and make an approximate estimate of the number of people killed in the whole state. And pray, how CESU proposes to fight this monumental menace? Hold your breath, by proposing to the Odisha Electricity Regulatory Commission (OERC) a corpus fund, made out of a Re 1 cess on every electricity consumer, to compensate those who get electrocuted in future - and that too a day after the Golanthara tragedy! It is as if they have accepted deaths due to electrocution as a fact of life about which nothing can be done. Someone should tell them they should focus instead on how to ensure that people, animals or vehicles don’t come in contact with live wires - something they are duty-bound to do in any case.

Life is indeed cheap in India. Had a mishap of this magnitude taken place in the US – or for that matter in any other western country – Southco would have been rendered bankrupt several times over. A few years ago, the US government made British Petroleum, the oil giant, pay a whopping US #20 billion (yes, you heard it right) for an oil spill off its coast that killed 11 persons. Even Americans know how cheap life is in India. That’s why the erstwhile Union Carbide, now called Dow Chemical Company, fought desperately to have the Bhopal gas tragedy cases tried in India rather than the US. No prizes for guessing why. Nothing, it seems, has changed in the three decades and more since the greatest industrial accident in the world. Life still remains cheap: worth a paltry Rs 2 lakh in this case.

Apart from the worth of life, what about accountability? Why should the guilty be let off with a mere suspension or even dismissal from service? Why shouldn’t criminal liability be fixed on them? Why should criminal cases not be registered against them? Why should they not be arrested? After all, this is cold-blooded killing!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)

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