Friday, 15 November 2013

Amina Awaits Compensation

When mishaps of electricity occur due to the negligence of the electricity department, they cannot be termed as accidents.  Similarly we cannot claim every mishap as the negligence of the department. . .  But when a poor family loses its sole bread winner to an electric accident, what gives anyone the right to make them wait for five years for compensation, under the pretext of not receiving the appropriate documents in the right order?

Mohammad Sheikh hailed from the Mudnooru village of Vitla. He married Abdul Khader’s daughter Amina from Kambalabettu, and was blessed with four children.  He was a labourer by profession.  When his earnings did not suffice, Amina started rolling beedis to support the family.  They were a content family despite all the hardships.

Like all the poor families Mohammed also lived in a small house without the basic amenity of a bathroom and toilet.  The family met their needs of bath and toilet by the side of a nearby water stream where they would get water for about 8 months in a year.    

When the mishap took place

On 23rd December 2001, Mohammed, who went to the stream to attend to the nature’s call, did not return home even after 1 o’clock.  Amina got worried.  Shortly, she spotted some people of the neighbourhood carrying Mohammed towards home and was panic stricken to find that he had suffered an electric shock. 

 A broken branch of the tree fell on the high tension electric wires passing above the bushes where Mohammed was emptying his bowels.  The friction between the live wires of 110 KV flamed up the dried bushes underneath.  Before Mohammed could get up from the place the fire engulfed him he was burnt up to the skin.  

His painful screams for help drew the attention of Rafiq, Basha Saheb, Ibrahim and some others who rushed to the place.  They doused the fire and pulled Mohammad out of the bushes.  He was already charred from neck to his toes.  They took him to Chetana hospital in Puttur by auto rickshaw.   He was given the first aid and was advised to be taken immediately to the Wenlock hospital, Mangalore. 
It was already 6 PM when they reached the Hospital.  The burns department of the hospital attended to his injuries and prepared a report of his burns and sent it over to Pandeshwara Police Station.  Albeit he remained conscious, Mohammad was in a very critical condition and was groaning in extreme pain.

The next day when the police arrived at 2 pm, he narrated the whole incident to them.  They recorded how the high tension wires had rubbed against the dried bushes and caught fire.  Mohammad’s right hand was completely burnt and he was unable to sign the recorded complaint so they took his left thumb impression instead.

Battling death

The doctors struggled in vain as Mohammad fought for his life.  But his condition worsened day by day.  His right hand and legs had completely lost the sensation.  But Amina persevered for his well being.   She took him to Father Muller’s Hospital at Kankanady, Mangalore, for better treatment.  She pleaded with the doctors to cure her husband at any cost.   They had to amputate the toes of his left leg and fingers of the right hand in order to save his life but all in vain.   After 40 days of battling, Mohammad succumbed to his injuries on 20-3-2002.

Amina was completely spent.   After three months of the battle, she had spent every paisa she had.  Mr Chandrashekhar, an inspector from the electricity department had taken her signatures on some papers saying, the department would provide compensation for Mohammad’s death.  Amina had to clear a debt of 3 lakhs borrowed from friends and finance companies.  She had no clue how and to whom to apply for the compensation, or what documents would be required for the same.

Attempts to obtain compensation

With the help of a school teacher Amina managed to apply to the Electricity Department in Vitla, requesting them for the compensation for her husband’s death in an electric accident.

She sent a copy of the letter to the Human Rights Protection Foundation asking them for guidance.  The very next day, the activists of the Foundation contacted the Electricity Section in Vitla. 
“All the details have been forwarded to the higher office in Mangalore on 18-1-2002.  The family will be granted the money any day.  This will be done in the routine way”, they replied humbly.

On confirming that all the details of the accident (letter numbered EEE/SRS/B-14/2674/77 dated 18-1-2002) had reached the higher office of the department, the activists did not make any further correspondence.  Though the incident was published in the newspapers, people eventually forgot about it.

Meanwhile, widowed Amina waited for the compensation.  She contacted Mr Chandrashekhar several times asking about it, but he consoled her saying, “Government proceedings usually take their time.  Since the details of the accident have already been sent, the money will definitely be granted.”   “Why don’t you enquire at the Mangalore Electricity Supply Company (MESCOM) office at Vitla?”, he suggested another time.  But when she went to the Vitla office, they told her to enquire at the office in Mangalore.  After three years of running from pillar to post, as a last resort she approached a lawyer.  The lawyer enquired if her husband had given any statement to the police before his death.  Where was the FIR of the accident?  Where was the post mortem report?  Poor Amina did not understand what he was talking about and where she could find all these reports.

Support from the Foundation

As per the lawyer’s advice, she approached the Human Rights Protection Foundation office. The activists obtained all the details from her and sent a letter directly to the Executive Engineer of MESCOM.  It said, “It’s been three years since the accident took place and no compensation has been granted till date.  Who should Mrs Amina contact to receive the money she is entitled to?”
The reply from the official, received within ten days revealed that he was aware of the said incident taken place on 23-12-2001. 

The following points from the letter of the department may be observed.
“. . . We learnt that Mr. Sheikh Mohammad had had burn injuries on his hand and below the chest.  We also came to know that he was first taken to Chetana Hospital, and then moved to Wenlock Hospital.  Later on he was taken to Father Muller’s hospital on 11-1-2002 for better treatment and getting well. . .  But I regret to state that there is no notice of his death whatsoever either from you or from the Vitla section office.”  He had sent copies of this letter to all the concerned offices of MESCOM.  A copy of the letter was also sent to the Foundation, requesting them to send all the information about the incident and copies of all the letters and correspondence, if any, made with the Department.

The most puzzling thing was that none of the offices had any document related to Mohammad’s accident or Amina’s application for compensation.  But fortunately, Human Rights Protection Foundation had preserved all the documents; Amina’s application for compensation dated 28-3-2002, and the letters from the department dated 11-1-2002 and 18-1-2002.  Photocopies of all these documents were sent to the MESCOM officials in Kavooru.  The activists of the foundation guided Amina to obtain the FIR, Muhammad’s death certificate, succession certificate from the Tahshildar which were the documents essential to claim the compensation.  On 2-06-2006,   within 15 days, all these were sent to the concerned.

Why the delay?

Five years had elapsed since the accident!  The BPL family had lost their sole bread winner.  Did they have to wait for such a long period for the compensation?  Knowing that Amina was uneducated, whose responsibility was it to guide her and make her aware of the process and requirements of the same?  Without considering any of that, was it right on the part of the department to shirk away from their responsibility saying that the right documents were not produced?

It is not a question of who was responsible for the accident.  How could the department remain passive for five years, in spite of the knowledge that, a person had lost his life due to some problem related to their own department?  Would they behave in the same fashion if it had been their own relative?  If they had denied her any money, she would have at least moved the court!  Even after five months of submitting all the required documents for the compensation the amount was not released to Amina!  Is it a befitting action on the part of these QUALIFIED ENGINEERS to keep mum on the matter?


Mohammed himself is responsible!

Within   a week of this, the Chief Engineer of MESCOM Sri Adishesha replied’ “As per our records Sheik Mohammed met with this accident when he was illegally cutting the branches of the tree.  The Corporation is in no way responsible for the said accident and for any compensation on this behalf to the deceased.  However the Corporation has decided to grant the compensation on humanitarian grounds.   

Assuming that MESCOM was right on their contention, the activists had the solace that at least the compensation was being granted.

Within a few days, the Foundation received another letter from Amina.
“Sir, I received a call from one Mr Muralidhar of MESCOM office, asking me to personally collect the compensation cheque for rupees one lakh.  When I went to collect the cheque, I was asked to submit an undertaking stating that I would not make any further efforts asking for more compensation, before the release of the cheque.  I begged them for more compensation as I had spent more than Rs. 3 lakhs towards my husband’s treatment.  But I was denied of anything more and was threatened that if I did not submit the undertaking, even the sanctioned compensation would be forfeited.   Owing to my poverty, I had to give in, and I submitted the undertaking.  A copy of the same is enclosed.  My apologies to you Sir, as I have submitted the same without consulting you.  Yours, Amina.”

What does it mean?

The Foundation had assumed that Mohammad himself was responsible for the tragedy.  But the attitude of the Corporation gave rise suspicions about the death.  So, the Foundation decided to investigate into the matter.

An investigation committee led by Dr Nityananda Pai, of Consumer Forum, Puttur, visited the accident spot and collected the details.  As per the rules, the Corporation has to clear the trees and plants up to a distance of 22m around the vicinity of the multi-circuit electric lines.  It would be considered as negligence on the part of the Corporation, if they failed to do so.
The work of cutting down the trees is the responsibility of the Forest Department and the Electricity Department is responsible for supplying the RTC, and valuation of the trees in deciding the compensation to the land owners.  When they visited the place, they saw that there was not a single tree within 22 m, of both sides of the electric lines.  Suppose there was a tree five years ago, then whose responsibility was it to fell it.  If it had not been done, was it not negligence on the part of the Corporation?  The Foundation had sufficient records of proof that no efforts were made to remove the trees, until 2006.

If at all the matter went to the court, the negligence of the Corporation on this score would undoubtedly come to light.  Dreading this eventuality, they had resorted to pressurize Amina to submit the undertaking. 

Readers may think that Amina had erred by submitting the undertaking.  But The Supreme Court and the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission have declared that undertaking submitted due to force or out of helplessness bear no value.  If the QUALIFIED OFFICERS of the Electricity Department are ignorant of this fact, let them judge themselves whether they deserve to hold their respective posts.  Let no other hapless, illiterate woman like Amina fall a prey to such heinous acts of the so called educated people.  Could you ever fathom that anybody could be so heartless?

Who exactly was responsible?

An investigation committee visited the accident spot at Kambalabettu to verify  the truth of the  Elect.  Corporation’s version that Sheikh Mohammad had died in an accident caused when the branch of the tree which he was cutting down, had fallen on the high tension wires and caught fire.  None of the other reports had made a mention of the tree being cut, so why was the Corporation making this statement?  They stated that someone from the neighbourhood had lodged a complaint about the same, but the complainant was anonymous.  So the Committee could not verify this fact.

As per the rules, the Electricity Department had to clear the trees and plants up to a distance of 22m around the 110 KV multi-circuit electric lines.  Hence as per the argument of the top officials, there cannot be any tree in this area.  Such being the case, the question of Mohammad cutting the tree does not arise.  In fact there were no trees in this place.

There was an explicit reason for this accident.  About 15 years ago, spots for planting the electric towers were marked for the Bantawal-Puttur HT power supply lines, passing through Kambalabettu.  One such tower was supposed to be planted in the private lands of the ex MLA Mrs. Leelavathi Rai.  They failed to do so as permission was not granted.  For the same reason, lines were drawn from only two towers skipping a tower in between.  So, there was a distance of 350-400m between the towers 138 and 139.  Moreover, there was a vented dam close by due to which the wires fixed hung at a low height of 10-12 feet from the ground.  They were dangerously hanging low scaring the villagers to death who crossed the dam carrying hay on their heads.

On 2001 December, Sheikh Mohammad who was mining sand from the stream went to the nearby bush to attend to nature’s call.  At this time, due to strong winds the bushes came in contact with the wires and caught fire.  It was recorded by the police that Mohammad suffered severe burns on his legs, thighs, chest and both hands, as a result of this fire. 

But as per the report by the Electricity Department, Mohammad’s hands and chest were burnt while cutting the tree.

Readers may please observe the photo of Mohammad published in Udayavani.  It is evident that but for the neck and head, the whole of Mohammad’s body is charred.  One can decide how reliable the report from the Department is.  On hearing the blasting sound, followed by Mohammad’s screams for help, his neighbours, Ismail Saheb Nooji, K Ibrahim Saheb, Rafiq and some others, rushed to his rescue.  Later on Mohammad had succumbed to his injuries on 20-3-2002.

While the Deparment had all along  remained complacent towards the complaints lodged by the localites about the dangers of the low hanging electric wires, now within a few days of the said accident, planted one more tower in between towers 138 and 139, and had pulled up the wires to a safe height.  In the meantime, the land owner had changed, which turned out to be a blessing for the department to finish their job.

But still, as a proof of the divine complacency of the Department, the Low Tension wires were still hanging at a height of 10-12 feet above the dam.  All this information was gathered from the eye witnesses, when the investigation committee visited the place for the second time on 22-11-2006.  Snap shots of the spot were also taken for records.  

(translated from 'Bahujana Hitaaya, Bahujana Sukhaya' by Dr Ravindranath Shanbhag)

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