Sunday, November 28, 2004

Our civic agencies should take a leaf out of NY book

Our civic agencies should take a leaf out of NY book
H.S. Balram , Times of India

A woman walking her dog on a New York street accidentally steps on a metal plate which has got electrified by a utility box wire not properly insulated, collapses and dies instantly. Her death sets off a firestorm of criticism. Guess what the company responsible for maintenance of electrical equipment pays her family as compensation. Over $6 million! Not just that. It sets up a $1 million scholarship fund in her name at Columbia University, where she studied. The company also launches citywide inspection of its equipment at locations where the public is exposed to stray voltage, and takes immediate corrective measures.

Compare this with a similar incident in Bangalore. A seven-year-old boy on his way home from a neighbourhood shop, accidentally touches a low-hanging cable television wire connected to a power line. In seconds, his life is snuffed out as the wire is electrified because of improper insulation. Shocked citizens raise a hue and cry. How do the authorities respond? They begin a blame game. Bescom, the agency that supplies power to Bangalore, accuses the cable operators of using their lines illegally. In turn, the cable operators say that they have been paying Bescom regularly for the purpose. The electrical inspectorate, responsible for policing power lines, says it is helpless as it is understaffed.

As everyone keeps passing the buck, the minister in charge of power visits the victim’s house, announces a compensation of Rs 1 lakh and orders an inquiry by the chief electrical inspector. The family rejects the compensation. It is then the turn of the CM to make a visit. He orders another inquiry by his principal secretary. But the bureaucrat says he has no time. Bescom orders its own inquiry. Nothing comes of these inquiries.

This is not the end. Bescom and cable operators get into a full-scale war. Officials go around snapping all cable wires with a vengeance. Cable operators go on a snap strike and cable TV channels are not available for days. For the harried citizens, it is like rubbing salt into the wound. As days pass, the brouhaha dies down. The issue is forgotten. No regrets. No heads roll. No one goes to jail. No compensation is paid. Cable channels can be seen again. Cable wires continue to run along power lines. The family of the boy is left to mourn in silence.

What a contrast in the respect given to human life. Not just hefty compensation and a scholarship fund, the US company also makes a statement to heal the wounds of the family: “The men and women of Con Edison (the electrical company) deeply regret the tragic death of Jodie S. Lane (the victim). The settlement allows us to demonstrate our continuing commitment to making New York a better place’’. Do we ever hear such consoling words from our civic agencies? No. Everyone keeps pointing a finger at others.

In paying compensation, the US company acknowledges its fault in the woman’s death, a conclusion its own investigators reach when they find that workers have improperly insulated a wire. The New York City Council then passes a law that requires the company to inspect all its equipment to protect them from stray voltage and publish the results of the inspection. And what does the father of the victim have to say? “The settlement will not take away my pain, but will give some hope that her death was not in vain. Hopefully it will help prevent the problem that caused our loss’’.

Can we ever expect such a response? Why are we like this? In the last two years, we have come across several cases of criminal negligence by Bangalore’s civic agencies. But no one has been held accountable. A couple and their two children in a car went down the drain literally and were washed away as they drove on mistaking it for a flooded road. An old lady taking her grandson for a walk slipped and fell into an open manhole and died of suffocation. A college student got off a bus onto a flooded road, walked a few steps, fell into a drain and was washed away. The latest of such incidents was the electrocution of the boy mentioned above.

One only hopes the civic agencies and the government learn a lesson from the New York incident. The tax-paying citizens have every right to demand action against irresponsible and insensitive civic agencies. They too must organise themselves to fight lethargy, negligence and insensitivity of the agencies’ staff.


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