Sitting inside a hot oven of a room with no electricity, as temperature outside soar to 44.4 degrees Celsius, the highest in Maharashtra, 40-year-old Mohammed Ilyas says he fears the frequent power outages in Malegaon these days far more than the outbreak that has converted the city into a Covid-19 hotspot. Ilyas, who stays in Akhtarabad, works in a powerloom that is presently shut due to the lockdown. He stays with his extended family of six adults and four children in 250 sqft house.
“They claim that heat kills this virus, I am not sure if forcing people to live in this sweltering heat by cutting off electricity is part of the government’s strategy to contain the virus,” says Ilyas in jest. Over the last 10 days, thousands of residents of Malegaon have been forced to go without electricity for one to three hours each day as Malegaon Power Supply Limited (MPSL), a private company that has been given the distribution franchisee for supplying power to the city by the state government, carries out maintenance work during the Covid-19 outbreak.
As of Sunday, Malegaon had a total of 526 positive cases and 34 fatalities since the first case was registered on April 8. Many politicians as well as city administrators have blamed the spread to the failure of local residents in following lockdown and social-distancing rules.
Majority of the 6 lakh residents of Malegaon, located 280 km north of Mumbai, live in densely-packed localities. Over 55 per cent of the city’s population, as per the 2011 census, lives in slums, where as many as 10-15 people are forced to live in less than 100 sqft of space.
“The state expects people to maintain the rules of lockdown, but fails to provide the bare minimum amenities that could make the lives of people a little bit comfortable during these troubled times. It is difficult to imagine people’s plight especially in slum pockets where they are forced to stay without fan or coolers in this searing heat,” said journalist and social entrepreneur Aleem Faizee.
Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company’s executive engineer in-charge of Malegaon, J K Bhamare, said the government had handed over the distribution franchisee for power supply and maintenance to MPSL as part of the move to privatise power supply in designated cities where the state was facing losses.
The MPSL acknowledged there were instances of power outages as it was undertaking maintenance work across the city.
“We have taken over the project on March 1 and it is an extremely shoddy distribution system, which requires immediate maintenance. We realise that due to the lockdown and the high number of Covid-19 cases this outage is causing discomfort to residents. We are doing this in a phased manner and on an average, the outage is not for more than 60 to 90 minutes,” said Biplab Paul, chief operating officer, MPSL. He added that the maintenance work would be carried out till the end of June.
Local residents have, however, questioned the timing of the maintenance work and cutting down power supply at a time when a heat wave is sweeping the city. Since the beginning of May, the temperature of the city has not dipped below 42 degrees Celsius. The highest temperature noted was 44.4 degrees on May 8.
Meanwhile, the local administration said it will take up the issue with concerned authorities.
“We will take up the issue with the requisite authorities to ensure that residents of the city do not have to face undue hardships during the lockdown,” said Pankaj Ashiya, an IAS officer appointed as the special monitoring officer to oversee the Malegaon Emergency Operation Centre, established after the coronavirus outbreak in the city.
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