Ministers as mourners Saturday, Dec 6 2008 

Perumon train accident

Perumon train accident

Very tragic events happen in the State, and it is only natural for people to expect the Ministers and others in the Executive to respond to them. But, how should they do that? Should ministers rush to the spot?

When the Perumon train tragedy occurred in Kollam district (in 1988), hardly any Minister rushed to the spot. But fire force, police and revenue officials did. Because people downed in minutes, they could not do much by way of saving lives. The locals did. They even saved people trapped in partly submerged compartments. But the bureaucrats managed the recovery of bodies well. Later, they congratulated themselves with good service entries.

If Ministers had rushed there, they could have nothing other than hindering the fire engines and ambulances moving through the narrow roads. (Though Ministers visited the place later on, that never became a media event).

The enquiry commission, appointed by the Railways, reported that the accident was caused by a tornado, some thing never heard of in Kerala. Hence, none could be held accountable for the tragedy.

In recent years, Ministers have started issuing statements that they had directed collectors to do the relief work, government hospitals to provide treatment to the victims and so on. Reading those statements, it would appear that no system is in place in the State that would take charge of the situation without the directives from the ministers. Of late, it has become mandatory for Ministers to visit the location.

When terror struck Mumbai, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Opposition Leader L. K. Advani visited the city, necessitating the deployment of about 2000 policemen and other security personal for their security. This was when the police should be fighting the terrorists and the Prime Minister pondering over how to coordinate the country’s response and diplomacy.

When nine school children were killed in a road accident at Irikkur (Kannur district) on December 5, the Chief Minister, Revenue Minister, Education Minister and the Health Minister and Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy rushed to the spot. This is a record. Fewer Ministers had gone to Kothamangalam when 15 schoolchildren and 3 teachers died in the Thattekkad boat tragedy.

The difference between now and then is that the coming year is an election year. More than that, the public demand that the Ministers should visit the spot keep on increasing. The public have come to believe that it is the duty of the ministers to do so. However, the Ministers do not face enough pressure to ensure accountability. Most of the recommendations of the commission that enquired into the boat tragedy remain unimplemented. The same can be said about enquiries into several other tragedies also.

Theoretically, the visits of several ministers to accident spots should affect the governance. However, the governance is not hit seriously, as most of the Ministers are on travel most of the time. Still, it would be a good idea to arrive at a consensus that only one Minister need represent the Cabinet. However, collective responsibility of the Cabinet is thing of the past with Minister operating with opposing interests. So, everyone connected to the departments concerned should be there. However, they hardly even do any follow other than issuing the ‘directives’ and announcing the solatia. The underlying problems that caused the tragedy are never addressed.

While the ministers undertake their tours at government expenses, the plight of the members of the Assembly are unenviable. The norm now is that they should attend every funeral and marriage in their constituency. They will get only their normal constituency allowance. And the visits become more demanding in an election year. Under such circumstances, even sincere members would not find time to do their real work as legislators.

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Invited accidents at power plants Wednesday, May 21 2008 

Power transmission towerThe explosions at Moozhiyar and pipeburst at Panniar hydroelectrict generation stations that killed seven people (four at Moozhiyar and three at Panniar) were accidents that could have been avoided. The accidents were the results of gross negligence in maintenance.

In fact, all generating stations under the State Electricity Board suffers from want of timely maintenance. This not only causes loss of lives but heavy financial losses too in terms of subsequent repair costs and loss of power generation (both from lower efficiencies and shut down). Accidents are rare in well-maintained hydel generating stations.

The accident at Moozhiyar was waiting to happen (so also was that at Panniar). The gap between the rotor and stator of the generating unit had been widening for sometime. But the authorities did not take it as a warning signal. The generating station also lacked proper alarm and safety systems including fire safety systems. According to reports, fires could not be controlled even after fire service personnnel arrived.

At Panniar, the pen stocks had coroded and that had not happened overnight. The accident at Panniar also pointed to lack of training. The workers who attempted to plug the leakage of penstocks apparantly did not know how to do it safely. They closed the valves letting in water into the generators without closing the inlet and not thinking of the (water) hammering.

Though State Electricity Board officials had been going to Canada often for so called training, the Board had been depending on suppliers and outside consultaties to solve even minor maintenance/ repair problems. For years, the Board has not cared to keep its civil and electrical engineers well-trained and competent.

Many of its power stations are overstaffed by modern standards. Fewer personnel are required at power stations these days, if modern control systems are installed. The can even be managed remotely.