Snow brings cheers to Shimla but also nightmares with harrowing tales
This article I write both as a resident of the city who faced extreme trauma and also as an official of the city government and the perspective required to look at things from management of the incident which eventually lands up into a crisis and the total misdemeanour of the disaster management cell/structure with people left haywire!
Day 1st :-Date 7th January
It was 4 am, the time when I normally get up but since these days I am an attendant to my ailing mother in IGMC, I tend to get up a little late owing to frequent breaks in the sleep . At 4 am I felt a little cold and realised that the central heating system in IGMC the premier medical institution is not working, the heating points were also not working, however there was light owing to electricity run though a generator which has a limited capacity. I realised there was electricity failure owing to snow which had started the previous night. I also realised that because of the vulnerability of the hilly region of Shimla the electric cables often get damaged with land slides , tree felling triggered by the snowfall. I called the Superintending Engineer of electricity board the Himachal Pradesh state electricity board (HPSEB) , the only discom in the state Mr Dadwal, who to my surprise was also alert and knew about the fault . However, he was not sure where the fault lie. For IGMC as I was concerned more he told me there are two lines from Jutogh and Malyana 33 KV on which patrolling has started to identify where the fault lies ie where the trees have fallen on the electric cables , poles etc.. Just to help them I contacted Shalini the famous radio jockey (RJ) from a private FM channel who said that she is unable to go to the office and hence will not be of much help. Then I got into touch with station director of the All India Radio Mr Johal to whom I explained the importance of radio broadcast so that the people can locate in their neighbourhoods the damage done to these cables. The AIR acted promptly . The fault in main 33 KV line that provides power to IGMC was damaged at several places. Messages , calls started pouring in and I realised it’s a big challenge. Nearly 30 trees (on the whole may be more than 100) at different locations had fallen and some of them on these electric cables and poles.
I contacted my Commissioner Pankaj Rai and asked him to ensure that at least some of the most important areas and the critical ones are targeted first for intervention from MC. Fortunately some structure exists in the MC and because of which 6 machines including 2 robots which were kept on stand by since last night were pressed into operations. But in IGMC the situation remained precarious with no heating and intermittent supply of electricity through the diesel generators that too just for lighting. In the meantime, calls started pouring in from different parts of the city about the trees broken or fallen on roads, houses and electric poles and cables. By the day, we were able to identify the number to about 39. Perhaps more trees had fallen but because of poor reportage the number was less reported.
I was in constant touch with the electricity department and its officers who kept on saying that they are on the job and surely they should be able to restore electricity at least to the hospital. Quite true apparently, as they were working hard as was evident from the fact that even during inclement weather with heavy snowfall continuing they were working in the jungles of Bharari and elsewhere trying to restore power.
In the IGMC I was apprised that in case the electricity supply is not restored then the back system with diesel gen sets will not last for more than 4 hours and hence diesel is required for the hospital to run especially its critical services like the ICU and the ventilators. But the vehicle of the hospital that was supposed to fetch diesel from Dhalli petrol pumps was itself stuck near cancer hospital and hence it was impossible for it to get the fuel. Dr Shad Rizvi the deputy MS of the hospital called me and asked for immediate intervention as it was only for the MC to fetch diesel in one of its snow cutter machines. The machine (JCB in local parlance) that was clearing snow on the lakkar Bazar -Sanjaulli road was brought to the IGMC from where 3 drums were loaded and 600 litres of diesel from Dhalli was brought. The executive engineer of MC Sudhir Gupta took great initiative in the exercise. The worse started happening. The taps ran dry as water stored in the tanks was exhausted. So now in the hospital especially in B block there was no heating and on top of that no water! The attendants of the patients would not store water nor do they have the capacity to do that for quite obvious reasons. So, there was panic all around. A patient in room no 630 was a renal failure one who incessantly had to use the toilet but there was no water. The attendants had no choice. The administration did not respond. I think they did not even had the capacity to respond! Somehow till late evening there was a feeling that electricity would be restored but to a great dissatisfaction it wasn’t. Somehow the night was passed in cold wearing lots of clothes and blankets. The only solace was that the electric points meant nor for heating could at least heat water in electric kettles. So, water bottles for the patients and something else for the attendants made the night through.
Later in the evening I spoke to both the SE Mr Dadwal and the director operations HPSEB Mr RK Sharma who quite candidly admitted their failure. Nevertheless hard work was put up throughout the day. I got to know from them that human resource happens to be one of the major impediments. On top of that skilled labour to cut fallen trees etc was also missing. Speaking to some of the union representatives I came to know that the labour force has reduced by half in electricity board and the workload has increased by 4 times, which meant a worker was working 8 times more than what he was working previously. On a conference with both I promised them to provide some Kashmiri migrant workmen whom I knew because of our engagement with them in MC Shimla. Apparently, they are the best skilled in this kind of work.
Day 2nd ie 8th January 2017
I got up at 4 am and realised that there was still no water and for all reasons water was required. Nokh Ram the ward boy and I went up on the roof and gathered some snow in the bucket so that at least we could use it for the toilet. For the rest of the attendants they went downstairs to fetch buckets of water so that at least toilet could be used hygienically. And this I am talking about the best and the most premier institute of the state the IGMC! By now 30 hours had passed without electricity and water was also not available. We got the filtered water from the different blocks in the hospital especially the ctvs department which sustained us for the day.
During the day as it was Sunday, I worked from the hospital coordinating with the Mayor and took the calls. The foremost priority being the two hospitals which I was told have been cleared. The electricity department too was on the toes and were in the field with some hired labour to restore electricity. More reports of tree felling came from different parts of the city. Interestingly not a single area was reported that was not affected by the snowfall and its triggered effect. So, 5 forest teams were constituted so that the trees could be removed from the roads and the electric cables. But back in IGMC there was neither water nor electricity.
Once again, the fuel issue came to the fore and once again the MC team was used to ensure that diesel could be ensured to the hospital. Till late evening when it was almost clear that there would be no light and one more day the patients and attendants will be traumatised the heating points started functioning at about 9 pm. This was some kind a relief though the central heating did not function but at least the heating of the room through private heaters etc began and this was the night when sky was clear and the night would be bitter cold. I spoke to the SE , HPSEB who told me that this arrangement has been done from Malyana station and still Jutogh, the main supply poses a challenge. Which meant that for central heating it will take more time.
The next day that is 9th January there was electricity but no water as the power connection to the pump would become operational only if Jutogh 33 KV was through and in its absence, it was not possible for them to supply. I spoke to the secretary health and told him the precarious situation existing in the hospital who to my surprise was quite unaware as he was briefed differently. Dr Rahul Rao another deputy MS and one of the able officers was instrumental into building a link in between the generator and the pump so that water could be lifted and eventually it was done by 1 pm. But till the writing of this essay there is not central heating though water and electricity is available. Another problem arose regarding the hospital and that was the oxygen vehicle stranded at Khalini . I was told that because of its delay operations was put on hold. And all this is happening with the premier institution of the state.
And then there were reports from Akarshan from bus stand where he stated that because of electricity failure the servers were not functioning and passengers were unable to book their tickets. ‘demonetisation has further worsened the situation. I’m sure there are more harrowing incidents which people have and which will go with them unreported but the lessons are to be learnt so that snowfall which is an event to be celebrated does not become an event to bring in trauma , anguish and pain. Unfortunately, it does because of the failure which is intuitional and also the way our systems have developed which I always connote as ‘the backward form of capitalist development’. This is never going to meet such challenges.
Why I am writing all this is not just to denigrate an individual or an institution but also to build them. And build the city resilience as the city has developed a very interesting professional city resilience index (CRI). Of course, ARUP was instrumental in building that.
Lessons that I feel needs to be learnt.
- The disaster management cell is completely obsolete with holding just mock drills and it itself has become a subject of mockery.
- The city disaster management plan of action though has been passed but not ratified by the government because if that happens then the city government led by the Mayor will be the chief head of operations and the nodal agency. For obvious reasons the government does not want to empower such a structure. So, in its absence there is the district disaster management agency headed by the district administration which was completely out of ideas and reason for the ways in which intervention is to be made. For example, the MC still works with the old manuals drawn by the Britishers for snow etc and the meetings/ preparations for such eventuality is done in advance. More than 5 snow cutters were on standby, similarly stone dust was purchased in advanced so that the ice does not increase the vulnerability. Thought the practical experiences are far worse than what was expected. Actually, a ward disaster management plan of action has to be shaped so that things are managed well. All this Im not writing to defend the MC but just to put things in perspective.
- In the absence of the single authority there was hardly any coordination in different agencies and work was oriented with the direction where more cry was generated in the public. For example both the Mayor and I along with our commissioner were following the movements of the forest department so that trees could be removed and roads could be made through. One single agency either the Shimla MC or the district authority should lead and then all other important parastatals should be linked to them like the health department, electricity department, police, forest etc. In its absence, the relief was directed towards the more influential and those who made a larger cry. This is not the scientific method and it should be directed with prioritisation of the departments and the utilities. Imagine if the hospital is getting electricity after 41 hours then at other places things would be far worse. Similarly, the major departments have and must have the human resource to perform. Neo liberalism has made these posts dead cadres and there is hardly anyone left to work on the ground. Had it not been for the Kashmiri migrant workers this city would have not been able to get up so soon.
- This also brings me to a debate that is often generated not so vividly loud but quietly. Should we not have a winter capital elsewhere, where such precariousness is minimised. For the infrastructure to be developed in Shimla to ensure that all this does not happen in future the per capita infrastructure cost would be phenomenal, take for example if the bare minimum in the sense that the basic utilities are to be put in the duct will require at least a capital of Rs 500 crores. So were the Britishers wise in always moving their winter capital to Calcutta or Delhi. Do we need to do that? I think it is an open debate that requires more provocation for every one of us to engage and proactively decide our future in this city.
Well keeping that debate alive, I think there is lot more that I would have liked to write but to theorise it further would take more time and patience both of which I’m lacking right now. Hope we will learn lessons so that we can build our city life better and resilient.