It is raining live wires!

It is raining live wires!

It is raining live wires!

Bangaloreans dread to walk on the roads when it rains. They have a solid reason to be scared of those live wires dangling dangerously from overhead power lines that should have gone underground years ago.  

His bicycle tyre punctured, 10-year-old Rahil was rolling it down the Rameshnagar Road in pouring rain last week. He nearly missed the couple shouting behind him, warning of a live wire a few steps ahead. Shaken, he rushed to the other side and watched what unfolded in horror: A stray dog stepped on the wire that instant and dropped down dead.

It was all over in seconds. The wire had snapped from the overhead electricity line in the thunderous downpour. Rahil was barely lucky, unlike scores of people across the City electrocuted on contact with wires dangling dangerously.

The pre-monsoon showers have definitely struck a deadly note. It has exposed the dangers inherent in the proximity of weak-rooted trees with decades-old overhead electricity lines. Is the Bangalore Electricity Company Limited (Bescom) prepared for the big monsoon round the corner? Is the BBMP that maintains the streetlight wirings ready? Are the fire forces geared up?

For years, talk of undergrounding overhead electricity cables had raised hopes of well-insulated wires stuck deep inside dedicated utility ducts. But, it involved big money, professional planning, and coordination with multiple agencies. Predictably, nothing much happened on this front even as the city grew, spreading its haphazard tentacles far and wide, its power distribution infrastructure stuck in another century.

Bescom Chief General Manager (Operations), Chikkananjappa contends that the underground cabling is a work in progress. But the city will have to wait for the 10 roads currently being upgraded under TenderSURE to get a glimpse of power lines in permanent utility ducts underground.

Immediate measures

So, what is the immediate concern? As the Bescom official explains, the priority will be on identification of weak points, tree-cuttings, tightening and changing of wires / cable lines wherever necessary, restringing of loose spans of the conductor, and installation of intermediate poles if required. But, he hastens to add that these are routine maintenance jobs which the agency does any way.

Yet, the monsoon complicates and worsens existing problems. He admits that unnatural climatic conditions can bring enormous pressure on the infrastructure. Unless all the agencies concerned work in tandem with the traffic police and other departments to fell trees, avoid electrocutions and clear roads in quick time, there could be chaos. In the city’s core areas within a radius of about five kms, Bescom says it has replaced most overhead lines with underground cables. Bare conductors in congested locations are replaced by the insulated Arial Bunched Cables. Modern tools such as power hackshaws, bucket vans, ladders, cranes and emergency lights are also in place, although not enough to cater to the entire city.

But many highly congested areas within the city and the newly added BBMP areas on the outskirts remain vulnerable to accidents, particularly during rains. Multiple illegal connections from a single line, often using cables of questionable quality, add to the threats. In hundreds of localities, the overhead wires pass too close to balconies within touching distance. Even more dangerous are the high-tension wires hanging above thousands of multi-storey houses in KR Puram, Mahadevapura and surrounding areas. The electro-magnetic fields around these high voltage lines are too strong to risk building anything closeby. 

Since most roads are in bad shape in these areas with poor drainage facilities, even a light shower creates pools of water. It is a pedestrian’s nightmare to negotiate them and a live wire in water is the last thing they would want. Unnikrishnan K, an assistant professor at a private college, wonders how an IT city such as Bangalore can afford to be so negligent about its people’s safety. 

Transformer blasts

The recent transformer blast in Koramangala that killed one and injured four others points to another problem: The surge in the number of overloaded electrical installations that are getting increasingly prone to explosions and damages, particularly during rains. A Bescom official explains that blasts happen when the coils weaken, faults develop and the pressure increases due to overloading. The failure percentage of distribution transformers in the Bescom limits during 2013-14 has reportedly touched 8.27 per cent, the highest in the last five years.  

In the heart of the city too, many transformers are placed right on the pavements, endangering lives. Any blast in a water-logged road could spell disaster. Shifting these transformers underground without creating the necessary safety ducts will only add to the danger of electrocutions, caution electricity experts. 

B K Hampagol, who retired from the State Fire and Emergency Services Department as deputy director (technical), says there is not much of a coordination issue with BBMP and Bescom. But, the problem lies elsewhere and it requires immediate attention. He explains, “We should ensure that people working in the control room are thoroughly aware of the City's geography. Our overall communication system should be improved so that response and feedback happen at a rapid speed.”

Open pillars

Electrocution, he points out, happens primarily due to the live lines on open pillars. “We should opt for an underground cable system. Bescom should be equipped with trained personnel with quality tools who conduct periodical maintenance of pillars. Vehicles in good condition and equipment should be provided.” It is said that some senior officers rarely visit the spot during incidents. Hampagol says this should not be the case. 

Shifting of cables underground might be a slow and expensive proposition. But Bescom will have to quickly arrest the growing list of electrocutions before the heavy rains trigger chaos. This April alone, at least 13 electrocutions were reported from the Bescom limits, besides 28 non-fatal accidents. Before this figure spirals out of control, the agency will have to boost its safety record. Strict safety discipline will have to be enforced on the field staff. The company top brass is reported to have warned of action if the staff do not comply.