How Electricity Safety Is Tragically Falling Through Governance Gaps
Moneylife Digital Team 10 June 2022
Over the years, there has been a big increase in the number of accidents related to electricity in absolute and per capita terms. Consumers from rural areas are major victims of these accidents, primarily caused due to contact with conductors in the distribution system or at non-industrial consumer locations. Poor design, sub-standard construction, poor maintenance and lack of safety awareness contribute to the increase of accidents, finds a discussion paper published by Pune-based energy group Prayas.
Sreekumar Nhalur, the author of the paper, says, "Since most accidents occur in the distribution system, distribution companies (DISCOMs) have the highest role to play in reducing accidents. But for them, improving financial health, reducing energy losses and providing reliable power to consumers is a higher priority. Safety is not high in their performance metric. National policies or initiatives do not currently have any safety components. Therefore, electricity safety is tragically slipping through governance gaps."
According to the paper, accident reduction requires technical and management measures over a period of many years. It says, "Specific safety initiatives by the central government, increased priority to safety by distribution companies, strengthening the role of state electrical inspectorates, proactive efforts by electricity regulators to ensure implementation of safety measures and building safety awareness in the general public are crucial if accidents have to be reduced." 
"The Central Electricity Authority of India (CEA), some utilities, State Electricity Regulatory Commission (SERCs), professional organisations and consumer organisations have initiated small steps to reduce accidents, but these need to be significantly strengthened. Only concerted efforts by all sector actors over a period of few years can reverse the trend and bring down the number and rate of accidents," Mr Nhalur says.
The major immediate cause of accidents is contact with live conductors, the discussion paper points out, adding, "Root causes include low priority to safety, bad design, poor maintenance, unauthorised repair, bad quality earthing, and inadequate protection systems. Addressing the root causes requires an understanding of the safety governance structure and identifying the gaps."
As per the 2020 Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India (ADSI) report, 15,258 people died from electrical shocks and fires between January and December. CEA reports 7,717 fatal human accidents in FY19-20. 
Fatalities per 100,000 population, also called as fatality rate, is the most used parameter to compare different accident causes or geographies. 
In India, the fatality rate has been increasing over the years and is a little above 1, as per ADSI data and around 0.6 as per CEA data in 2020.
Mr Nhalur writes, "The numbers are vastly different, perhaps due to data collection and reporting issues, which is an area of major concern. Whatever be the actual numbers, a worrying trend is that the number of accidents and also accidents normalised with parameters like population, number of consumers or energy handled, have been steadily increasing over the years."
Electricity systems up to the point of supply (generation, transmission and distribution) or end-use (consumer premises), can cause electric shocks (also called electrocution) and fires due to electrical faults. These, in turn, lead to human or animal injuries, deaths, and appliance or property damage.  
The discussion paper "Electricity safety: Tragically falling through the governance gaps" also points out that most of the electrical accidents in India happen in rural areas and affect the public. "They occur mostly in the distribution system or at non-industrial consumer locations. Therefore, accident reduction is a public challenge and efforts should focus on rural areas and distribution systems."
A state-wise analysis of accidents indicates that 85% of the accidents occur in 11 states, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh. Within the states, there is variation in the number of accidents based on consumer-mix, state of maintenance of the distribution network, climatic conditions and safety awareness. 
According to the paper, electricity safety is a public interest challenge which can be met only through coordinated action involving all sector actors. "There is scope to improve the current safety regulations. But the implementation of the current safety regulatory regime can be significantly tightened through better data collection, introducing safety aspects in national programs, strengthening safety institutions, developing safety metrics for DISCOMs, involving public and professionals in safety initiatives and utilising technological innovations." 
"The need of the hour is a concrete accident reduction program in the distribution sector, with a clear scope of work, sufficient resource allocation and robust monitoring and verification mechanism. Only this can ensure that our electricity supply is not only universal, affordable and good quality but also safe," it concludes.
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