We need an urgent national electrical safety plan

There is reason to be proud of the growth of India’s electricity sector since independence. There has been significant growth in infrastructure, with nearly every household having a power connection, amid promises to provide 24/7 power supply and achieve net zero emissions by 2070. While this is commendable, the sector also faces many problems, with electrical accidents being a tragic one.

Understanding problems and failures is essential for growth and success. And it is unfortunate that the increasing rate of electrical accidents is a problem that has not received enough attention from those who plan, regulate and operate the electricity sector. National or state policies or programs do not include specific goals or resource allocations for security. In some cases where resources are allocated, they are underutilized or a small portion is devoted to personnel for safety kits or training.

Increase in deaths

According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, the death toll and fatality rate (per lakh population) due to electric shocks and fires have been steadily increasing over the years. From 2,957 deaths and 0.36 deaths per lakh population in 1990, it has risen to 15,258 deaths and 1.13 deaths per lakh population in 2020. Data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) tells the same history in terms of an increase in fatalities. It should be mentioned that in many developed countries, the number of deaths has been decreasing over the years and the number of deaths per lakh population is in the range of 0.03 or less.

Accidents, as the saying goes, don’t just happen, but are caused. From the analysis of the available data, it appears that more than 90% of the people who died following electrical accidents are the general public. Therefore, any attempt to reduce these accidents must include the safety of the general public as a top priority.

Geographically, most electrical accidents seem to occur in rural areas, but given rapid urbanization, poor urban localities also require special attention. In electrical terms, most accidents occur in the distribution system and among non-industrial consumers. Most fatalities occur on the distribution network (particularly 11 kV and low voltage systems) and low voltage consumer sites, and therefore require greater attention.

Electrocution due to accidental contact with live conductors is the immediate cause of accidents in the majority of cases. The reason could be chattering or sagging conductors, or exposed switchboards at low heights. The second major reason is fire due to power failures, which accounts for around 12% of accidents. Poor design, poor construction, inadequate maintenance, inadequate protection systems and a lack of safety awareness are some of the root causes.

Safety checks and reviews

There are safety rules developed by the CEA, which all electrical utilities are required to follow. But there is no mechanism to ensure that utilities follow them. For example, distribution companies are expected to have security officers and perform periodic security audits. These are not done because collecting revenue and repairing breakdowns are higher priorities for businesses. State electrical inspectors are supposed to approve connections, license electricians and conduct accident investigations. But they are vastly understaffed. As for security professionals, they focus on industrial security and not on rural public security aspects. Many well-meaning grassroots organizations focus on pro-bono coverage for accident victims, not accident prevention.

Electrical safety is a challenge of general interest, which can only be met through coordinated action involving all stakeholders. The implementation of the current safety regulatory regime can be significantly strengthened through better data collection, the introduction of safety aspects into national programs, the strengthening of safety institutions, the development of safety measures for distribution companies, the participation of the public and professionals in safety initiatives and the use of technological innovations.

The need of the hour is a national program to reduce electrical accidents in the distribution sector, with a clear scope of work, sufficient resource allocation and a robust monitoring and verification mechanism. States could identify districts that have reported a high number of accidents in recent years and develop a program to reduce accidents. Only such measures can ensure that the electricity supply is not only universal, affordable and of good quality, but also safe.

Sreekumar Nhalur, Prayas (energy group), Pune