Shopian/ Srinagar: Line men working on ‘temporary’ basis for the Power Development Department (PDD) have been risking their lives without any safety gear, not even shoes provided by the department, to restore power supply in south Kashmir amid the heaviest snowfall witnessed in years.
The line men are being hailed as “heroes” for being at the forefront of power restoration work in snow-bound Kashmir valley but the appreciation means little to these labourers who continue to work on meagre wages, unsafe conditions, and a constant eye at an uncertain future.
Irshad Ahmad, a ‘casual’ employee of the PDD, as these line men are called, said that the PDD’s permanent employees are being given only shoes but the ‘casual’ ones don’t even get the shoes. He said that shock-proof gloves, rain hoods, and insulated trousers were a distant dream for them. “There aren’t even ladders to climb the poles,” he said.
“Injuries, falls, and public hostility are part of our job,” he said. Even complaints to higher officials and requests asking for gadgets were never heard, he added.
In a video recently circulated on social media, a line man said that he fell from a ladder while repairing an insulator. “I was forced to tie two ladders with a rope to replace the insulator but the rope came untied and I fell on the ground,” he says in the video.
Dozens of photos of line men repairing power lines with bare hands have been shared by netizens. The line men can also be seen without any waterproof wear even where it snowed more than 4 feet.
The lack of safety gear isn’t a problem confined to any particular district. The working conditions of these people are the same all over Kashmir, and even tougher in the higher reaches where the snowfall is the heaviest.
Another line man, requesting anonymity, told Kashmir Reader that he had two miraculous escapes when he was electrocuted while repairing transformers. “On one occasion I was bed ridden for several months, with no help either from the government or from locals,” he said. For the work they do, he said, line men are paid Rs 6,700 per month, with no additional allowance or insurance. It is less than the pocket money that rich people give to their children, he said.
People in Kashmir have been taking to social media platforms these days to appreciate the work of these unsung heroes. “While most of us are sitting at home in our warm blankets, the line men and other employees of the PDD are risking their lives out there. So for a change for our usual selves, let’s take a moment to thank them. Thank you. We wish you safety and long life,” a Facebook user posted along with a picture of a line man working on top of an electric pole.
To the workers, however, the words of gratitude are cold comfort while their lives hang by a thread. “Amid the snow we have to climb iron poles to mend lines, and the only thing we have is ladders. There is no safety equipment to prevent us from electrocution and/or a fall to the ground,” a line man working in main town Anantnag told Kashmir Reader.
And that is the reason that almost every month there is news of some or the other ‘casual’ labourer of the department getting electrocuted, left for dead or worse, handicapped for life.
“In the last 12 years alone, we have lost about 65 of our men – who have been electrocuted to death. 270 others have been handicapped for life,” said Abdul Rasheed Samboori, president of Jammu and Kashmir Electrical Employees Union.
He lamented that the safety equipment provided is not enough for the manpower the department has. “Yes, there is some safety equipment but that is enough for only one-tenth of the people on the ground. How will that suffice?” Samboori said.
The line men, being ‘temporary’ employees, do not get any insurance or any financial assistance in case they die or become handicapped while performing their duty.
“We did not even get a regular salary until recently. Now we are being paid around 6k per month, but that is way too little. Successive governments have been promising our regularisation, which would have at least got us some financial security, but no one has so far delivered,” a line man in Iqbal Abad area of Bemina told Kashmir Reader.
The sad part is that the number of such people is not small. There are around 7,300 such employees who are working in the harshest of conditions on a paltry salary.
“Yes, it does feel good when people appreciate your efforts and call you a hero. But the government needs to seriously look at our plight and do something for us,” another daily wager, from Pulwama town of south Kashmir, told Kashmir Reader. “That is the least they can do for us. We work in absolute penury with no fixed hours of work and no guarantee of our lives.”
While the general public understands these issues, there is not much they can do, apart from praising these men for their dedication and hard work. That is what the people of Kashmir have been doing for the past few days now.
Kashmir Reader tried talking to the Chief Engineer PDD, Aijaz Dar, on this issue but he did not answer phone calls from this reporter.