Burnt and smoking bodies of the need-based government linemen have been unsettling Kashmir for a very long time now, without inviting an emergency action plan to curtail the wire-induced fatality. This ‘expendable’ workforce that risk their lives with the hope of getting regularized one day often leave behind their shocked families devoid of relief and rehabilitation.
On September 1, 2018, 33-year-old Mohammad Khalil Itoo from Ara Khashipora village of Islamabad district woke up early in the morning to repeated phone calls. He left his breakfast midway, and went to repair the High Tension (HT) wire that had fallen from the electric pole in Bona-Dialgam area, just 5 km away from his home.
At around 9 am, Mohammad Maqbool Itoo, elder brother of Khalil received a call from an unknown person, informing him that his sibling was electrocuted along with other workers and was rushed to district hospital Islamabad.
The news spelt doom, forcing Maqbool to run towards the hospital, where he found the dead body of his brother. In the grieving corridor of the hospital, Khalil’s wasn’t just a routine death.
Over the period of time, his tribe would be increasingly spotted hanging on wires—with their roasted bodies emitting smoke—to helplessness and chest-beatings of the onlookers. Kashmir’s linemen have been suffering this fate for very long now, sans creating any change in their parent department’s safety mechanism.
Today, Khalil has become another sob story, and a pattern of sorts in Kashmir. As per his shocked family, Khalil’s bosses would ring him up, and ‘order’ him to attend some risky situation. Since the last decade, the ‘gentleman’ lineman working as a registered need-based worker with the Power Development Department (PDD) since 2007 would attend those perilous undertakings with a hope of getting regularized one day.
Khalil would often complain to his sister that the officials only called him when there was risk. “He was helpless, but working honestly for pennies—hoping one day he would come home with the regularization order,” says Saleema, Khalil’s sister.
The departed lineman has left behind his woebegone widow, Amina, howling 5-year-old son, Eizan, and a clueless 14-month-old daughter, Ateeba.
“Khalil didn’t have any fixed wage and wasn’t being properly paid,” says Maqbool Itoo, Khalil’s elder brother. “Last time, on Eid, he received just Rs 1300. Otherwise, they used to give him anything between Rs 200 and Rs 400 for doing the dangerous job.”
On that fateful morning, Khalil along with others had been repairing the HT wire for half an hour, amid the power cut. Suddenly the current passed through the wire he was holding.
“It was a double circuit,” says Rameez Ahmad, an eye-witness. “One HT was working, while the other was lying on the ground. How current ran through the wire suddenly, no one knows.” But Khalil’s family terms it complete negligence on part of his department.
“How do they take such things easy,” Maqbool asks, fuming. “Also, these need-based workers or casual labourers never receive any training. Since 2007 when my brother was registered as need-based worker, we didn’t see them to give him any training.”
But the PDD officials who visited Khalil’s house promised them that they’ll receive compensation and a daily-wager job in the department.
Like Khalil, scores of PDD employees lost their lives while repairing electricity wires and those who survived these tragic incidents are living the handicapped life.
“Scores of casual labourers and need-based workers have already lost their life,” says Mushtaq Ahmad, a lineman working in Srinagar. “Officials order us to work in risky situations and when any untoward thing happens they claim it was our own fault. We’re working in this department for years. We take such huge risks and in return, we mostly get 500 per month.”
The linemen, Mushtaq continues, aren’t given any training and or any safety equipment — even when asked to repair dangerous lines of like 1100 or 33000 volts.
In Laizbal area of Islamabad, 33-year-old Irshad Ahmad Sheikh has been walking on crutches since he faced a tragic accident while repairing an HT wire in Seepen, Khanabal area of Islamabad on 10 November 2009.
The incident in which Irshad’s spinal cord got severely damaged left him crippled for life. He has a direct drain for urine, and is wearing a Knee Ankle Foot Orthosis (KAFO) for properly aligning his legs.
Irshad was registered as a need-based worker in PDD department in 2007. “It was snowing and HT line was damaged. They called me and told me to repair the line, even the concerned inspector was with me. I went hurriedly. I was working hard, with the thought that one day I would get regularized but that day never comes,” says Irshad. “The current suddenly passed through the wire. I received a shock and fell on the ground.”
He was rushed to Srinagar, but he was severely injured. After spending months in hospitals, Irshad was not able to walk. “We spent years on his treatment. We took him outside Kashmir, but nothing happened. We had spent around Rs 20 lakhs on his treatment. And for that, we even had to sell our car,” says Mohammad Yousuf Sheikh, Irshad’s brother. “Then we finally reached one famous physiotherapist and spent Rs 3.80 lac at a time. Then he was able to walk with the help of crutches and KAFO.”
The life-crippling injury changed his life. Irshad was scheduled to marry when he faced the accident. “But when he became handicapped, we broke the marriage,” says Jalla Banu, Irshad’s mother. “We didn’t want the girl to suffer. She was pious. The tragic accident broke many hearts and damaged families.”
After fighting hard for his case, Irshad finally received Rs 5.42 lac as compensation. “The government refused to give him compensation initially,” says Yousuf. “Then I filed a case against PDD in the Labour Court. After fighting for years, we received that amount.”
But despite facing such a tragic accident, he’s still registered as a need-based worker and is being taken for a ride on regularization promise.
“Sometimes they tell me to bring certificates, sometimes they ask to fill a form, but nothing is happening,” Irshad rues. “It seems they’re playing with my emotions.”
Seeing the condition of his son, Jalla often worries what will happen to Irshad after her. “His father Abdul Ganie Sheikh died two years after that. He couldn’t bear his condition,” she laments.
Officially, there’re 550 need-based linemen registered in the valley and the department receives only Rs 10 lakh per year for them. Among them, 50 are on fixed wages and the department has to pay them Rs 6,000 monthly salaries and the remaining amount is being distributed among the need-based workers throughout the year.
“We’ve more work force because the department has a plan to renew electricity and provide better service to the public. That is the reason why accidents are increasing day by day,” says Qazi Hashmat Yousuf, Chief Engineer, PDD. “We’ve everything like safety kit, give training, organize awareness programmes and show heart-wrenching pictures to employees, but they take it for granted.”
The department, he says, warned the linemen — even suspended some permanent employees for not taking safety equipment with them while going to repair something.
“We give Rs 3 lakh ex-gratia to victims who lose their life,” Yousuf says. “There’s no rule for casual labourers to get permanent employment if they die while on work. But we do give them money accordingly.”
But given how the larger plight of the need-based linemen faces the apathetic official attitude, the tormented families, like that of Khalil, suffer in silence, sans inducing the course correction.
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