Hashim Raza is working “overhead” today. The 25-year-old lifts a rassa (thick rope) from a mound of discarded aluminium wires and transmission cables. He throws a loop around his waist, winds another around his neck and seals the knot. He then fastens himself to a 20-foot-tall pole and pushes himself to its tip to reach the high-tension cables designed for transmitting 11,000 volts of current. He then takes out his tools — a plier and a knife — to cut and join wires.
It’s an easy task for Raza, a contract labourer with the Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam in Gurgaon. But it becomes a challenge when he has to repair a wire anywhere along its length. In that case, he ties one end of the rope around his waist and pushes the other end through the many strands of thick wires that make a transmission cable. “With the loose end, I make a swing on which I sit if I were to hang from the wire and mend it. Or, it goes around my waist if I were to stand and walk to the portion that needs to be repaired,” he says.
Raza’s tight-rope walk on wires or delicate balance in his “chair” — sometimes as high as 100 feet up — is one of the many daring acts that ensures a steady power supply to Gurgaon’s condominiums and offices. The demand for electricity in the city has been rising by 15-17 per cent annually. The current installed transmission and distribution capacity is around 1,700 MW while demand this summer was more than 1,600 MW at times. Going by current estimates, demand for power in Gurgaon may cross 1,900 MW by 2015.
The first thing Raza does is turn the main switch off so that no power runs through the cables. Then he climbs the tower and walk on the wires. Walking over one-inch-thick wires strains his calf muscles even as he has to keep his back straight while staying slightly bent forward at the waist to steady his centre of gravity. The rest he leaves to his rassa. “I trust my rope more than the harness my employer provides me. I wear the harness only because it is protocol.” Though he is an “overhead” specialist, he sometimes does “underground” work, which is digging up the earth for wiring.
Raza understands the risk to his life everytime he goes up. “It is not thrilling to be so high up in the air,” he says matter-of-factly. “Everything looks ant-like from there. I always say my prayers before I begin the walk.”
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He believes he took to the job easily because he used to climb trees around his house in his village in Bihar. “Wahan bachha bachha ped chadta hai (Every child climbs trees there).”
Raza’s jhuggi sits next to the power house in Gurgaon’s Sector 56, amid wild grass. He lives there with 15 other workers, most of them from Bihar. They work with electricity all day, their jhuggis surrounded by towering symmetrical metal structures delicately holding up transmission wires. But, for Raza and his friends, electricity figures almost nowhere in their lives. “We have no electrical gadgets, even television. We only have mobile phones,” he says.
The men have dug up a stray wire from one of the nearby transmission towers. They wind the tip of the underground wire around an iron nail hammered into a wooden stilt. This arrangement serves as a switch for charging their phones. The phones’ chargers’ plugs are taken off to expose bare wires.
Most men, like Raza, make around Rs 10,000 a month and send home around Rs 7,000-8,000. Raza stays with Israel, his father-in-law, and Khushboo, his brother-in-law. Israel, the thekedar, hires a tractor for Rs 15,000 a month, which is used to ferry maal, including transformers and electric cables, as well as Raza and others to their work.
No one has been seriously injured during work, the men say. Except once when Khushboo left the main line on. He touched an 11 KV high-tension wire at a railway outpost but, luckily, he was flung off the wire right into soft mud down below. If he had kept holding on to the wire he was mending, he would have died. “We rushed him to hospital. There was no insurance, but the employer paid around Rs 4 lakh for his treatment,” he says.
Last year, four of Raza’s friends were electrocuted in Palam Vihar in a government bijli ghar. The authorities told workers the circuit they were going to work on had no current. But when the workers touched the wires, they got electrocuted. The bijli house shut down soon after. “Khatra toh hai. But do we have a choice?” says Raza.