Devender Kumar, 36, says he has filed “10 cases in an 18-year career” as a lineman, for acts of violence against him while on duty. But what happened on the evening of June 7 was unprecedented, even for the veteran lineman. Devender and a few others were correcting an electrical fault in Gurgaon’s Civil Lines area when A K Raghav, a retired additional sessions judge who lived nearby, allegedly came barging out of his house, hurling abuses.
“He was annoyed because we had cut off the electricity supply between 12 and 5 pm to do our work. Ironically, we had already restored the connection by the time he charged at us,” says Kumar, a lineman who is a contractual employee of the Haryana electricity board, the Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam (DHBVN), and employed in Gurgaon.
Over the years, he says, he has grown immune to insults from disgruntled residents and occasional physical assaults such as the one on June 7.
He says the judge allegedly threatened to kill the men, before going back to his house, only to re-emerge with a pistol. “We thought he was making empty threats, but then he began firing at us… We had to run into the park nearby to save our lives,” says Kumar. Although there were no injuries, police have registered a case and a local court has sent the judge to 14-day judicial custody.
The community of linemen, however, believe this won’t be the last such incident, especially in summers, with rising temperatures and the increased pressure on the existing power grids in cities. “In summers, wires tend to get overloaded because of multiple air conditioners and fans running at the same time. As a result, our work increases and so do the altercations,” says Kumar. “People get annoyed because they have to endure the heat for a while but they do not realise that we have to work in the same heat to restore their comforts,” says the lineman.
Kumar says that in 1999, when he first left home in Bihar’s Begumpur village as an 18-year-old and arrived in Gurgaon, he had little education and no skill. But he managed to get this job through a fellow villager who worked in Gurgaon.
“Everything I learned was on the job, from watching my co-workers and people with more experience. I was initially afraid of getting electrocuted, but I could not afford to be scared. I needed the money to support myself and my family,” he says.
In the nearly 18 years since, Kumar says, he has worked every single day of the week through the year, except for an annual, month-long trip home to spend time with his wife and 12-year-old daughter.
His work day starts around 7 am, when Kumar wakes up in his rented accommodation on Basai road that he shares with four other linemen. At quarter to eight, he leaves his home and walks down to the DHBVN complaint centre in Kadipur. For the next “eight to ten hours”, Kumar is on duty.
According to sources, DHBVN is severely understaffed and, in several places, has hired private contractors to handle complaints and maintenance work. Kumar works for one such contractor in the Kadipur area where, sources say, there are only 20 linemen for 15-16,000 electrical connections.
“There are so few men and so many complaints and issues that there is no way we can resolve everyone’s problems as quickly as they expect. As a result, people often call us up or come to the office and hurl abuses. We have even had instances of violence,” says a staff member at the office.
Kumar, however, no longer handles complaints. Around 10 years ago, he graduated to maintaining and servicing outdoor electrical wiring — work that, he says, can take anywhere between two and five hours, depending on the magnitude of the problem.
“Our work is not concerned with attending to complaints, but it is determined by the number of complaints. For example, if an abnormally large number of complaints are received from a specific area, say, about electricity outages or transformer issues, we have to determine the problem and find a long-term solution,” says Kumar.
At noon this Tuesday, Kumar and a handful of other linemen are preparing to make a trip to Shivaji Nagar, where electricity outages have been a common occurrence over the past few days. The linemen had conducted a recee of the area a day earlier and ascertained that an old wire needed replacing.
The lineman have settled on a 150-metre-long wire as a replacement and have coiled and tied it up, along with a couple of others of lesser lengths to be carried as backup. Four men roll the wires out of the office’s veranda and load it onto a cart, which is to be attached to a jeep. The wires are secured to the cart through multiple ropes, before the men take a break for lunch at half past one, anticipating at least three hours of work, in the scorching sun, ahead of them.
Seated in the verandah of the office — some on rusted steel chairs and others on a single bed — under a rickety fan, the linemen eat chapattis, vegetables and lentils from steel tiffins they have carried from home.
“Usually, the evenings are the riskiest time to cut off electricity for our work. The men are back home and so are the children and so, there are more people in the area. If any situation develops, it aggravates quickly and can turn against us in no time,” says Kumar, sipping tea ordered from the store opposite the office.
Lounging on a bed with his back against the wall after his meal, as he waits for the others to finish their food, Sanjay Kumar, Kumar’s colleague, says, “There was a time when we were scared of people in Old Gurgaon or in villages, but now it feels like we are equally at risk everywhere. Take the case of the judge. He was a well-educated man… who would have expected him to shoot at us? People are becoming more aggressive and intolerant.”
It is 2 pm by the time the linemen finish their lunch. Of the group of eight, two stay behind while the remaining six either get into the jeep or board the cart, making their way to Shivaji Nagar, some 2 kilometres away.
Residents passing through the area on cycles and bikes stop to enquire about the work and the time for which electricity will be cut off.
“If only we are left alone to work, we could finish half an hour earlier at least,” laughs Kumar as he reassures a middle-aged resident that the connection will be back within a couple of hours.
The linemen spend half an hour untying and uncoiling the replacement wire until it snakes around the streets of the neighborhood. Once this is done, the power is cut off, ladders are taken off the cart and set against a transformer’s pillars. As the linemen begin their work, residents begin to emerge out of their homes, some lean out of windows and balconies, to watch the men at work — and urge them to restore the electricity.
“People think we are being slow or lazy, but finishing the work quickly is in our interest as well. The sooner we finish this, the sooner we can escape the sun and heat,” says Jitender, another lineman.
It is almost 5 pm by the time the wire is finally replaced, and by now, most residents have returned to their homes, leaving behind children riding cycles and playing games on the street. The linemen must now wind the old wire and load it onto the cart so it can be taken back to the office, where it will either be repaired or discarded.
According to office bearers of the Haryana State Electricity Board Workers’ Union, confrontations between linemen and residents turn violent “at least once or twice a month”. The situation, they say, has improved ever since they have been allowed to take along a police escort but it rarely helps when tempers are frayed.
“We are given police escort when we go to raid areas and nab people who steal electricity, but this doesn’t always guarantee our safety,” says Satish Kumar, Sub Divisional President of the union. “It is the worse for employees who have to conduct a raid in the very area where they handle complaints because people already know and recognise them. After the police leave, there is nothing that stops a mob from beating them up.”
The solution, he says, lies in changing the “system”. “People posted in an area should not conduct raids there… Residents too must become more sensitive and realise that these are just men doing their job — working in the sun, rain, and cold — all through the year.”
Linemen such Kumar have, however, resigned themselves to the fact that their job is riskier than they had bargained for. “Initially, I used to be surprised when people got angry or violent. Now we are used to it,” says Kumar, “But it is still disappointing. At the end of the day, the work we do is for the public and, instead of appreciating it, they misbehave with us.”