The dark side of streetlights

The dark side of streetlights

The cash-starved BBMP has no money to pay the power bills of the City’s streetlights. As darkness engulfs several roads in Bangalore, endangered is the safety of working women walking the last mile and motorists negotiating potholes and unmarked road humps.

Dark, desolate and dangerous, the streets lay without a beam of light. In their tearing hurry to get home before dusk fell, thousands of working women wished the streetlights at least flickered. Most didn’t, because the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) had unpaid electricity bills running into a whopping Rs. 190 crore! And the Palike knows the payments will not be done in a hurry.

So, more than the technical issues of faulty bulbs and wiring, this is the stark fiscal reality: Financial mismanagement, unaudited accounts, rampant corruption and embezzlement under the BBMP watch have crippled the city’s streetlighting infrastructure. 

The Palike, as sources reveal, has no money to pay Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (Bescom) bills over the last five months. Worse, it can’t even clear the interest accumulated on the pending dues, compounding the debt. Bescom has its ways of pressuring the Palike to pay up. As a highly placed BBMP official elaborates, the electricity agency often disconnects power supply to the streetlights in many areas. The financially ailing civic agency has to take refuge on the state government to sort out the power crisis. Recently, after a Bescom disconnection, the Palike had to go that way to clear part of its mounting dues.

The average monthly electricity bill of BBMP is about Rs. 23 crore, as a senior Palike engineer informs. But the Palike’s part payment of its dues has not helped matters. Since the arrears is huge, Bescom is in no mood to back down. Many parts of Bangalore are still without proper lighting, jeopardising the safety of women walking alone and motorists. 

Switching on is a task undone for several streetlights on Nawab Hyder Ali Road near City market, roads in the vicinity of Bellandur flyover, stretches of Old Airport road, and even parts of the high profile MG Road. Mounting debt, it is learnt, also forces the Palike to deliberately switch off the lights to reduce the monthly bills. But the BBMP Commissioner, M Lakshminarayana does not believe the picture is not so grim as is being painted. He contends, “It is an issue between two government agencies and there is always an understanding between the two over financial matters.”

Open invitation to crimes

But, struggling to arrest the spiralling crime graph in Bangalore, the city police are not impressed. “A poorly lit street is an open invitation for robberies and burglaries. It is very unsafe for lonely pedestrians and commuters, particularly women,” says Kamal Pant, Additional Commissioner of Police, Law and Order. With most IT / BPO companies catering to Western timings, employees - both men and women - are returning home at late hours. Poor lighting is the last thing they want on their way back, as these workers struggle for a safe route home.

Shaken by the robberies inside ATMs in the City, the police had asked banks to instal CCTVs both within and outside the kiosks. But these closed circuit cameras will capture nothing if the lighting is dismal. Agrees Pant, “Unless we use infrared cameras, there is no way we can capture the details of a culprit. With the existing CCTVs, you might be able to get the figure, but definitely not the face.” Infrared cameras are an expensive proposition. But the top police official says the city could have a mix of infrared and the ordinary CCTVs. 

A poorly lit road is also an invitation for accidents. The traffic police have records for innumerable fatal motorcyle mishaps triggered by blind rides over unmarked road-humps. Devoid of the reflector markings -- the most basic of warning signals --, the unscientifically designed and positioned road-humps are obviously not seen even from close quarters. Travelling at high speeds at night, many motorcyclists find these humps extremely dangerous.

Triggering accidents

Since footpaths in most parts of the city are in a pathetic state, pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road. In streets without lights, motorists fail to spot them, leading to accidents. As most City roads are notoriously infested with gaping potholes, motorists struggle to avoid them. Often, these manouvres in the dark lead to accidents. The 2,000-odd high mastlights installed at important junctions are the only saviours. But these expensive installations consume much higher electricity than conventional lighting equipment. 

With electricity bills getting expensive, BBMP is now exploring alternative options to power the streetlights. The Palike has reportedly proposed to set up 16 biogas plants in different parts of the city to produce 800 kilowatts of power from segregated organic waste. This, it is said, will generate enough power for streetlights in areas closer to the plant. One such unit is already installed in Singapura Layout, supplying power for four hours to 25 streetlights in the area.

Lights powered by solar energy could be a viable option. But the Palike is wary of installing them since it fears the theft of solar panels. Maintenance is another issue. For proof, check out the poor state of the 150 solar panels installed by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) for lighting underpasses near KR Circle, Maharani college and Ramana Maharshi road.  

The solar option

Two years ago, Bescom had warned BBMP that it would cut off power supply to new streetlights if half of them were not run on solar energy. But there was a basis for this caution. The power supply agency had noticed that streetlights were not being switched off after a day’s break, and the lights were being turned off during load shedding triggering a spike in crimes. It wanted the Palike to monitor and maintain the lights through an automatic switching system. 

Bescom had also suggested installing solar streetlights at least on alternate streets, so that a complete blackout can be avoided during power outages. It had cited the success of solar-powered traffic lights that are unaffected by powercuts. 

Light Emitting Diode (LED) streetlights is another energy-efficient alternative. A pilot project by BBMP had shown that these lights consumed much lesser units than metal halide lights (more popular as sodium vapour lights). But now, the Palike is of the view that LED lights are not viable and not cost effective. As a Palike official put it, LED intervention would require more research to make it affordable.  But alternative power sources can only partially compensate for the gaps in the traditional electricity-driven streetlights. And that means, maintaining the network of equipment spread across the City, in ship shape. 

However, this is hardly the case. A recent inspection by the BBMP standing committee for ward-level public works had exposed the poor maintenance. Even in core areas of the City, lights were found with fused bulbs. Penalties were imposed on those responsible for the streetlight upkeep, but that did nothing much to improve the scene in other parts of the City.

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