It is still dark around, just about an hour before the wet Monsoon morning, but the first group of lineworkers is out in the field already. The private contract workers of the Kerala State Electricity Board(KSEB) put on the hard hats, tucked their tiffin and lunch boxes into the bags, and climbed into the back of a mini truck at the section office, Othukkungal, Malappuram district.
They read out an address scribbled on a scrap of paper, and hastily headed out to the destination. In their wake chugged along another truck carrying three electric posts. The gang parked the vehicles near a heavy thicket where an electricity post was seen split in half. The crew jumped off the truck, and took five minutes to take some drags on beedis before furrowing a path through the thickets to the broken post.
“It was a strong wind,” foreman Muhammed Mujeeb said. “About 20 posts were broken in the area in last night’s wind.” They removed the creepers, cut off the loose power lines and took another look at the post. “This month, we received more complaints. This is the second time we are changing it.” Then the two hands pulled out a shovel and a pickaxe, and began digging a hole even as rain kept battering them. “ If it rains like this, it will take an hour of shoveling,” Mohanan M, another worker, said.
The past three weeks saw a frenzy of activities for the linesmen, with strong winds and heavy rain blowing over utility poles and overhead lines. For them, Monsoon comes packed with a tight schedule. They work overtime as calls of complaints keep ringing through their ears.
During these days, they start early in the morning and wind up only very late. Breakfast and lunch have to be ready before 6 am as they have to rush to the office for work assignment. Their busy schedule notwithstanding, consumers often shower them with abuses and complaints for being late to resolve their issues.
“Most consumers can’t wait for a day. They call to register a complaint and then continue pestering us with repeated phone calls and personal visits, despite the Covid-19 protocol,” said Abu Khais, assistant executive engineer, Othukkungal. “Many think linesmen are lazy. But that is not the case. If you don’t see us in the neighbourhood, that doesn’t mean we are not working on restoring powerlines. We don’t have enough men. Nobody thinks about the situation.”
The group works in a gang of five to eight people. They generally work eight hours a day, but during monsoon, it goes up to 12 or more hours as complaints flow into the office. A majority of the complaints will be about the downed lines or poles. The utility workers spend about three hours replacing the posts and about an hour or less by fixing the snapped lines. But when there is rain, the whole scene changes and even the experienced workers take more time.
By 9 am, the two men are done digging. Mujeeb and his men then unloaded a post from the truck. They tied a rope to its each end and another one to just about the centre, dragging it then near the hole. “We need to first push off the broken pole,” Mujeeb said. “Yeah, we should,” one of his men nodded. They put two nooses around the broken post and pushed them up until they tightened above.
“So here it is,” Mohanan said. They split into two groups of three men and moved to the left, each holding one end of the ropes. With mechanised synchronization, they pulled hard. “Bang,” the pole fell to the ground. “Let’s hurry, we need to finish this before breakfast,” said Mujeeb. As the crew was done uprooting the broken pole, a woman in the neighbourhood dropped off some water, tea and snacks.
“Guys, take a break,” the foreman said, and sat down with his men for a breather with the refreshments. In less than five minutes, they were back at it again. Mohanan put another noose around the pole and asked two of his crew to pull it hard while others supported the post on their shoulders. One man by the post hole used an iron rod to make sure the base of the pole perfectly went in. Two minutes of concerted pushing and pulling put the new pole in place.
After the installation, they fastened the cross arm and fixed the lines. “Phew, done,” Rajesh R, the younger one of the lot, said. “Put the fuse on and check,” Mujeeb said. Bulbs flickered in nearby houses and the group moved to one of them to check. They took 30 more minutes to finish their breakfast and took another round of drags on beedis. Just as they prepared to head out to the next location, a family rode by on a scooter and said “Thank you”.