Summer Assault: Shutdown in the time of lockdown

Summer Assault: Shutdown in the time of lockdown

Credit: DH illustration

Forced indoors for weeks by an unfettered virus, Bengalureans have had their lockdown struggles aggravated by a summer onslaught like no other. Trapped in the soaring heat, water shortage and power cuts have spelled double trouble for lakhs on the city’s edge.

Inevitably, the issues are more pronounced on the outskirts with minimal infrastructure. But the power outages have been widespread, with many wondering why residential areas should go dark when industrial units are under lockdown.

One oft-heard question is this: “If there is a supply issue, why can’t power to industrial/commercial units be diverted to our homes.” The Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (Bescom) insists that the issue is not with the supply, but with its infrastructure. The keyword is ‘maintenance.’

Power infra issues

Bursting transformers, snapped power cables, unwieldy poles, the city’s power infrastructure is in a mess in the best of times. With the onset of rains, the system would only get worse. Bescom officials assure that these problems will disappear once the cables are shifted underground, a promise repeated for years.

Dependent on water tankers for their daily supplies are thousands of households in the outer Bruhath Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) wards and its 110 villages. Frequent power outages have made it worse in recent weeks, sparking big trouble for the lockdown-enforced Work-From-Home alternatives.

Under the stranglehold of the private tanker mafia for years, Bellandur residents, for instance, never had a choice during peak summer. “Borewell not working, less water, the tankers always have excuses to increase their rates every year. The mafia is ruling here,” notes Sadasivam Balakrishnan from the Bangalore Apartments Federation (BAF).

Tanker mafia

Taken over by the BBMP in 2007, the area is still awaiting Cauvery water supply. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) says it has laid the pipelines but people are not taking the connections. Why is this so, when a dedicated connection can free them from the tanker mafia?

Balakrishnan explains, “Eighty-five per cent of the apartment complexes here don’t have Occupancy Certificates, and the Board says no connection without OC. What has water connection got to do with OC is beyond me. Water is a fundamental right. There is a nexus between the Board and the mafia.” A 6,000-litre load that would cost Rs 270 in 2005 is now beyond Rs 1,500 and more. “Water crisis is not something that is new for us. We have submitted so many representations to MLAs and other elected representatives.”

Affected areas

The Covid-19 lockdown and the spread of the virus have added another dimension to the problem. As Geeta Menon from the Stree Jagriti Samiti and Domestic Workers Rights Union points out, tankers had refused to ferry water to affected areas such as Tubarahalli and Kareemnagar. “None of the institutional setups available elsewhere will work for these people,” she explains.

The BBMP had recently announced that water up to 10,000 litres will be provided free-of-cost to domestic consumers. Welcoming this, Srinivas Alavilli from Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB) hopes the mechanism for distribution and supply has been thought through. It should not end up boosting the private tanker mafia.

To provide free water, the Palike has made a budgetary allocation of Rs 43 crore as annual payment to BWSSB. A family of four is estimated to consume about 10,000 litres every month.

Political accountability

On the power supply front, frequent shutdowns for maintenance have been frustrating for the residents. “A city that was the first to be electrified has no 24/7 supply. There is no political accountability for these issues. Head of Bescom should be reporting to the Mayor. This is the reform that we need,” says Alavilli.

Unreliable power has forced many to rely mostly on backup diesel generators, often seen as noisy and polluting. As Whitefield resident, Zibi Jamal puts it, “If you have to depend only on Bescom for Work-From-Home, you are doomed. DG sets are helpful but when the power goes off for an entire day, even they cannot work.”

Random disruptions

Bescom does adopt a protocol for scheduled power shutdowns, where supply is switched off for an entire day or half day for maintenance work. But, as Pravir B from Whitefield observes, it is the unscheduled, random supply disruptions that wreak havoc with backups and appliances.

During the lockdown’s early days, the power supply was okay. But it has turned erratic following the rains. “From April 10 to 22, the situation was better. But the evening rain on April 23 let to erratic power supply till midnight. It went off and on several times,” recalls Pravir.

UPS service issues

For most households that could afford inverters, uninterrupted power supply (UPS) has meant relief for about four hours. During the lockdown, UPS sales have not seen a surge, but service issues have spiked. A paucity of service executives has left many with inverters in disrepair.

The power demand has been growing at about 10% every year in Bengaluru, but the generation has not kept pace. “UPS batteries have to be changed every four-five years, and the WFH requirements during the lockdown period have increased the load on these systems,” informs K Suresh Babu, an UPS executive from SLV Power Controls.