How the lights came back in Kerala's ravaged homes

It took under a fortnight to restore electricity to 2.56 million homes following the floods, SHREEHARI PALIATH reports

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The devastating flood in Kerala left 2.56 million homes without electricity. How the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) restored power in under a fortnight by mobilising every human resource at hand – including retired staff and volunteers – and doing away with red tape and questions of hierarchy, could be a model for every disaster-stricken state.
The KSEB called its plan Mission Reconnect.
“The situation was unprecedented,” N.S. Pillai, Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) of KSEB recalled. “We had to ensure that requests for materials and personnel on ground were provided without the usual delays of following government procedure.”

A church is seen partially covered in flood waters in Alappuzha in the southern state of Kerala, India, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Kerala has been battered by torrential downpours since Aug. 8, with floods and landslides killing at least 250 people. About 800,000 people now living in some 4,000 relief camps. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

The flood waters damaged nearly 16,158 distribution transformers, 50 sub-stations, 15 large and small hydel stations, according to the KSEB data.
The KSEB set up a state-level task force (SLTF) at its headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram with a 24×7 control room. “Our primary role was to ensure communication to and from district-level officials was seamless,” said Suresh Kumar C., Deputy Chief Engineer leading the SLTF.
The challenge was to make human resource and material available at all levels of its functioning — from the control room in the state capital to section offices — and also ensure coordination between different wings of the board and between the board and external agencies. But what ensured the mission’s success was the doggedness with which workers and volunteers made sure they reached distressed homes and submerged villages.
“I am set to retire soon, and have never seen anything like this,” said Manikuttan, a sub-engineer with KSEB office in Chengannur, the worst-affected division in the state. It was his day off but he walked into his office in a white mundu (sarong) and brown shirt.
In the three days following August 15, he travelled to work in a milkman’s boat from his home around five km away. “Although my house wasn’t affected, I had to wade or swim till I could access transport,” he said. “For a few days we stayed in office to restore power in different parts of the sub-division.”
A stranded man wades through flood waters with a makeshift raft in Chengannur in the southern state of Kerala, India, Sunday, Aug.19, 2018. Some 800,000 people have been displaced and over 350 have died in the worst flooding in a century. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

Shyam Kumar, an assistant executive engineer, is a part of the project management unit (PMU) in Haripad circle. With senior officers stranded at home or in relief camps, he and his colleagues had to coordinate the restoration of infrastructure and supply to 120,000 consumers. “We assumed charge under the circumstances,” he said.
Teams of line staff, supervisors would patrol the 11-KV high transmission lines and inform nodal officers about their status and repair requirements. The officers would then communicate the information to the circle and the control room.
Volunteers from engineering colleges, retired KSEB staff and wiremen visited individual homes to check meters and wiring. “We ensured that electrical supplies, line materials, transformers and so on were moved here from other circles,” said Kumar.
Laila N.G., Assistant Executive Engineer at Chengannur, could only join work by August 22. Her home was a shelter to more than 20 neighbours hit by floods. “When I joined I realised it was a matter of managing resources, both human and material,” said Laila.
Just before the floods, 11 line staff had been transferred to new locations. This meant that the new people who had joined had little knowledge of the area and the distribution network.
“We requested that overseers and line staff be temporarily moved back so that they could help complete the restoration works quickly,” she said. The orders were passed immediately by the board.
Volunteers rescue stranded people from a flooded area in Chengannur in the southern state of Kerala, India, Sunday, Aug.19, 2018. Some 800,000 people have been displaced and over 350 have died in the worst flooding in a century. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

In Alangand too, a flood-hit section of Ernakulam, line staff and supervisors were transferred back to ensure that their familiarity with the region would hasten restoration work.
In some areas of Chengannur and Alangad, electric poles and lines had fallen into water-logged fields and wires were sagging. A team of eight KSEB staff with experience in working in water-logged areas helped resurrect the installations and pulled up the wires.
Transformers which were not damaged were charged, their oil replaced, and fuse removed to restore transmission. Nearly 99 per cent of the 16,158 affected transformers had been restored as of September 3, as per KSEB data.
“It was the effort of our own staff, volunteers that helped us restore power within few days despite our 33 KV substation tripping due to the flood,” said Anil Kumar, Assistant Engineer in Alangand.
In homes where it was not possible to supply power immediately due to structural damage, simple connections were provided which included a safety device to prevent shock, a power socket to use motors for cleaning or other purposes, and a bulb holder.
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The Kerala Electrical Wiremen and Supervisors Association, a private association of electrical workers, was vital in ensuring that homes were safe for power restoration.
“A group of 3-4 people would check the wiring of close to 150 homes a day, ideally in the presence of the homeowner,” said Jose Daniel, a member of the association in Chengannur. These men were among the first to wade through the slush and mud to damaged homes, often working late into the night.
Volunteers helped identify unsafe homes with damaged installation like meters or wiring. Wherever possible, they marked meters using stickers – red for damaged and green for undamaged – and created a checklist for reference. The entire 58-km stretch of 11 KV lines in Kuttanad, 86 per cent of which is on paddy fields located a few metres below mean sea level, was restored in five days.
Single point connections were provided to homes where wiring was damaged or those with issues of structural stability. “While the staff did an exemplary job, we received a lot of support from volunteers, wiremen and electricity staff from other state governments in the south,” said Pillai. Nearly 120 state electricity board staff from Andhra Pradesh arrived with their own equipment to join Mission Reconnect.
KSEB received more than 20,000 electricity meters and transformers from Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Since the board was implementing central schemes to improve power distribution and supply it had a stock of electrical poles, meters and transformers it could put to use in restoration work.
“We received around 125 transformers from Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation,” Santosh K., Executive Engineer in Pathanamthitta, recalled. “More than 220 transformers were submerged here, but we were able to either replace or fix them within five days thanks to the availability of replacements.”
The KSEB has decided to not collect electricity dues till January 31, 2019, to give people time to tide over the financial distress caused by the floods.

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