Op-Ed: Powerless Before Power Lines

Whoever discovered electricity couldn’t have imagined that the transmission line to carry power to those who need it could someday cause death, both of humans and animals. Most humans at least know about the dangers of touching a power transmission line. But animals are blissfully unaware of the inherent danger. The rapid and inexorable spread in electrification over the years has seen power lines encroach into animal habitats, putting animals in grave danger of getting electrocuted. And no animal is at greater risk from power lines than the biggest of them all: the elephant. Its mammoth size means it is more likely to come in contact with live wire and die in the process than any other animal.

Eight elephant deaths in the last eight months – and three in a span of 48 hours last week alone – due to electrocution gives a fair idea about the gravity of the threat that the pachyderm faces from power lines in Odisha. About 15% of all elephant deaths in Odisha are due to electrocution, which accounts for 42% of all deaths due to unnatural causes. Here are some more chilling figures that put the issue in clearer perspective. As many as 170 elephants have been killed in the state due to electrocution since 2000, 93 of them since 2010. More worryingly, 59 of these 93 deaths were caused by live wire traps set by poachers. (Source: Wildlife Society of Odisha). Ironically, far from coming down, elephant deaths actually increased after the government started earmarking funds to fix sagging power lines since 2010. This can mean one of two things; either the funds sanctioned remain unused or have not been used for the purpose for which they were sanctioned in the first place.

The saddest part of the story is that a vast majority of elephant deaths are eminently preventable if only the officials are willing and able to enforce existing rules. Power distribution companies routinely violate Central Electricity Authority (CEA) guidelines on laying and maintenance of 11X33 KV transmission/distribution lines in wildlife habitats while the norm of having overhead power lines at a minimum height of 5.5 meters from the ground is rarely observed. Sagging lines are seldom reported to the discoms and are not acted upon even when they are. There is an inexplicable failure to enforce the law as is clear from the fact that not a single discom official has been punished for dereliction of duty under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 despite the fact that close to 100 elephants have been electrocuted since 2000. In a bid to prevent elephant deaths due to electrocution, the state government decided in 2011 to fix accountability on the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) if an elephant is electrocuted in the area under his/her charge. But that the order has remained only on paper is clear from the fact that no action has been taken against any DFO for failure to prevent elephant deaths.

Monitoring of elephant movements and potential threat of electrocution by forest officials is conspicuous by its absence. Every forest range in areas inhabited by elephants has an elephant squad consisting of local youth who are supposed to monitor their movements and gets an allocation of about Rs. 1.5 lakh a month for the purpose. But many of them are used by superior officers for domestic chores while supervision of their activities is virtually non-existent. What makes things worse is the failure to act on the recommendation of a committee set up by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 2010 for use of earth leakage circuit breakers (ELCBs), which leads to instant snapping of electricity in case of an earth fault. Insulation of all overhead power lines is another measure that would go a long way in preventing elephant deaths. But for the government has failed to take this measure reasons known only to itself.

Electrocution deaths can be both accidental and deliberate. Sagging power lines is the reason for the first while live wire traps laid for poaching and defunct solar power fences connected to regular power lines are the two forms of the second. And it is the second which poses the gravest threat to elephants. While 80% of elephant deaths due to electrocution before 2010 were due to sagging power lines, its share has now come down to about 37% even as the share of electrocution by poachers has gone up to 63%. The problem is compounded by paddy and banana farmers who put up live wire fences to protect their crops.

From an average of 33 a year between 1990-2000, the number of elephant deaths has now risen to a whopping 73 per year! At this rate, there is a distinct possibility of our forests getting shorn of elephants in the next few years. This should have set alarm bells ringing in the government. But alas, nothing of the sort appears to have happened.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are 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).