‘I see helplessness in his eyes’: Mishaps on power lines render workers’ lives powerless

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For over two decades now, Abdul Rashid Wani has used his feet instead of hands. It was a hard compulsion and he had no choices.

A lineman with the electricity department, Wani had climbed an electricity pylon to fix a damaged high-tension wire in Srinagar. The line was supposed to be dead but when he held it with his bare hands, he was electrocuted. 

The horrifying incident was watched by a crowd, among whom was his brother, also a lineman then, who braved the risks — after throwing up several times — to pull Wani down using wooden sticks. Wani dangled on the pylon for about fifteen minutes. 

He was rushed to the nearby Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) hospital in Bemina and later to the SKIMS in Soura. For eight days, Wani writhed in pain on the hospital bed, partially conscious. “We were helpless,” recalled Shahnaz, his wife.

Shahnaz had fainted when she first saw Wani. The job of a lineman — essential workers to keep power lines functional — is fraught with risks but the Wani family never thought a calamity would befall upon them. 

What happened next is the story of every such lineman: abandoned by the government and left to fend for themselves.

‘It still haunts me’

Wani remembers waking up in a hospital bed to find his arms amputated — the damage was that severe. “I lost my youth,” he said. His then 7-year-old daughter Anisa Wani, unable to comprehend what had happened, suddenly became afraid of him.

An adult today, Anisa said she craved for her father’s touch. She never discussed her father’s condition with her friends. “I didn’t know how people would react. Even I had no idea how to react,” she said, holding back tears. “He doesn’t say it but I see the helplessness in his eyes.”

“I want him to hug me once,” she said. “I miss his touch, the embrace.”

Initially, Shahnaz bathed Wani and fed him till he adjusted to his new reality, a life without arms. “I would use a broom or wear gloves to clean him after he would urinate,” she said. Unable to come to terms with burdening her, Wani had often asked Shahnaz to divorce him.

Wani has now trained himself to draw the curtains and move cushions but is unable to feed himself. The 50-year-old answers the phone using his feet. Unable to hold the phone to his ears, he turned the speaker on. Even today, Wani said, “If I see damage [in the wires], I call the department to fix it.”

The cost of his medical treatment in the aftermath of the accident left the Wani family in severe financial distress. They slept with empty stomachs several times before Shahnaz took up a job at a printing press to support the family.

Wani was planning to quit his job until the accident forced him to. But looking at his misery, his brother, however, quit his job at the electricity department. Nineteen years later, nothing has changed in the power department. 

“If we were given the proper equipment, many lives would have been saved and many injuries ignored,” said Wani. “The department should at least compensate the families and injured linemen immediately.”

For Rather’s wife Shaheen Rather, 30, the world has come to an end. “We are a helpless family, we don’t have any support anymore,” she said. “The world is over for me. I don’t know what I do or say anymore… I lost everything that day”.

‘I lost everything’

On Eid-ul-Adha last year, Lineman Riyaz Ahmad Rather’s family was preparing a feast as he was fixing a damaged power line in downtown Srinagar. The high-voltage was supposed to have been disconnected at the local station but it wasn’t. His body burnt on the pylon, parts of it fell down on the road.

Rather was scheduled to return home to Kreshbal in Srinagar’s Noorbagh area the next day. Eid turned into mourning for the Rather family. His father Abdul Rehman Rather said that it was difficult for them to believe that the “experienced linemen” had died of electrocution.

Six months on, Rather’s mother Jaana sat in the dimly lit kitchen at their home, still coming to terms with the death of his son. “It’s not that he [Rather] died only, his mother is ready to die too,” said Abdul Rehman.

Several linemen have lost their lives or limbs fixing Kashmir’s power lines — in summers and in the harsh winters, even during heavy snow — without safety gear. Videos of linemen complaining of being given tasks without equipment went viral, evoking public sympathy.

In 2018 as a president of the PDD Daily Wagers’ Union, Shabir Ahmad had told media that about 11,500 daily wagers have been engaged from time to time in the job since 2005; among them, at least 150 had died and more than 1,000 had been seriously injured, with most having their limbs amputated, due to accidents in the line of duty.

Uncertainty and negligence

As the electricity department continues to remain indifferent to the safety of its workers, 55-year-old Abdul Majeed Beigh is considering quitting his job even as his retirement nears. The last time he was injured, Beigh said it took him “two years to heal.”

Despite being an employee of a government department, Beigh had to buy his own tools to do the job. “We even don’t have our own toolset or ladder,” he said. “Dozens [of linemen] burnt during the last few months too.”

On the lack of safety equipment, Chief Engineer of the Kashmir Power Distribution Corporation Aijaz Ahmad Dar said: “This is a continuous process, we do arrange gears on and off. Every six months, we even procure additional gear.” 

Dar said that the department has around 7000 casual laborers working with them and in case of an accident, “they get compensation in three to four months while they get interim relief immediately.”

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