A 51-year-old conservancy worker, S Sekar from Perumbakkam in Chennai, died of electrocution in July this year. The incident happened in Venkateshwara Nagar in Velachery when the worker came in contact with a high-tension underground cable while clearing garbage. The cable, which is supposed to be buried deep underneath the ground, was found to be much closer to the surface, leading to his unfortunate demise. And this is just one of many tragedies that the city has seen, arising from exposed electricity cables.
According to a news report, as many as 97 people have died of electrocution between January and March of 2022 across the State, many of them staff with the electricity board. With the monsoon in Chennai fast approaching, it is pertinent to ensure all safety measures are in place to prevent such incidents across the city.
Be it underground or overhead cables, both seem to pose life threats to the residents due to poor execution of work. This is especially crucial to consider in the event of rains.
Overhead cables an issue across Chennai
While a few areas in the core city have got underground electricity cables, many other areas continue to have overhead cables. Though the government began works for laying underground power cables across the city in 2019, the execution has been sluggish.
For residents of areas like Alandur, Adambakkam and Nanganallur, underground electricity cables have been a long-pending item on their wishlist.
“The overhead cables are very old. The damaged cables are attached using jumpers. These wires would snap at any time even for small rains or wind that would lead to untoward incidents like electrocution. Since not many roads are in good condition, the water stagnates even after a short spell of rain. When power cables snap during monsoon, it becomes a lot more dangerous. In a bid to prevent electrocution, the electricity department suspends the power supply which again affects routine domestic works,” says Rama Rao, a civic activist from Alandur.
Notably, Alandur is one of the areas in the city that has the highest number (143) of Ring Main Units (RMUs) that would replace the conventional transformers for easy maintenance and to ensure supply from alternative sources in case of interruption.
Rama Rao notes that the number of fire accidents in transformers has reduced since the RMUs were set up. However, converting the overhead cables to underground cables will be important in preventing electrocution due to snapping of old wires.
“As far as overhead cables are concerned, we have been repairing the damaged poles and cables and almost 90% of the work is over. Based on the complaints received from the residents, we are attending to the specific issues then and there,” says a Superintending Engineer (SE) of TANGEDCO.
Underground cables too pose threats
As Rama Rao mentions, the underground cables are intended to prevent electrocution. However, the same issue prevails even in their case.
Karpagam Gardens, one of the localities that has underground cables, is home to over 500 residents. According to Bhuvaneswari Natarajan, Secretary of Karpagam Gardens Welfare Association (KGWA), the individual houses in the locality have changed to multi-storey apartments over the years.
But the power cables have not been changed to be on par with the increasing population, with the existing old cables unable to withstand the load capacity. This leads to frequent power outages and low voltage supply in the locality.
In addition to this, the underground cables have not been buried properly. “The cables remain exposed on the surface level. Even if someone digs the ground to plant saplings, the cables are visible,” say the residents.
Prakash Lulla, a resident of Kilpauk Gardens also complains of exposed electricity cables. For the past six months, work has been going on for relaying the underground cables in Ormes Road in Kilpauk in addition to the stormwater drain work.
“We are not sure which government body is digging the ground for what purpose. The stretch along the Ponamallee High Road from Kilpauk to Anna Nagar is highly damaged as the roads are dug open frequently but remain unclosed for over three months. Recently, many such pits were closed but the upper layer has not yet been laid properly. The damaged roads lead to water stagnation during rains which eventually seeps through the ground. Since the cables are not buried deep enough, it gets exposed easily. If the insulation in the cables gets damaged, it leads to electrocution,” says Prakash.
“Since the stormwater drain works are underway, underground cables have been exposed. Steps are being taken to close the pits and bury the cables properly. However, there is a little delay in the works due to ongoing stormwater drain works”, says the SE.
Dangers of poorly maintained junction boxes in Chennai
Gayathri Jayaraman, Treasurer of KGWA, points out that the junction boxes in the locality are poorly maintained. “All the junction boxes are rusted. One of the boxes also caught fire recently,” she says, adding that despite many representations, there was no initiative from the officials to maintain the junction boxes.
With the heavy rains expected during the monsoon, the residents are planning to volunteer to remove the rust and paint the junction boxes.
Prakash has also sought the intervention of the EB to paint the junction boxes across the city and mark them with danger signs on them in the run up to the monsoons.
“Works are also on for replacing the rusted junction boxes that are too damaged, while the damaged portion of the boxes are alone being repaired in other places. The pillars in which the junction boxes are placed are also being heightened to prevent them from getting damaged due to water logging”, says the SE.
R Kanagaraj, President of AGS Colony Residents Welfare Association in Velachery, adds that many electricity boards in older houses across the city are placed at ground level.
“When these houses are located in low-lying areas, the EB officials tend to suspend the power supply for the whole area even for a short spell of rains,” he says, adding that the EB department should take steps to replace the domestic EB boxes to a height that would ensure it would not be affected during rains.
Kanagaraj also suggests that the electricity department in coordination with the Greater Chennai Corporation and Forest Department should take a tree census and make a calendar for maintenance of them well ahead of the monsoon. The trees should be pruned to ensure they do not touch the overhead cables.
Commenting on the dangers posed by unpruned trees, the TANGEDCO official added that trees in 4,800 locations across Chennai were identified and pruned until the month of July.
“We are also carrying out the pruning works as and when we receive public complaints and when such trees are identified during inspections”, says the SE.