Colombo Telegraph

The Delights Of A Rural Existence: Electricity Supply

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

Some years ago, after being left in the dark, literally, for many decades while some of our “politically-connected” rural neighbours had the benefits of power off the national grid, it was announced that we, too,  were soon to get “lights,” as the local Sinhala colloquialism has it.

Before the excitement generated by this announcement had died down, the “locals” had been shanghaied into contributing volunteer labour, saws, axes, knives etc. to clear the path for the high-tension feed up the mile-and-a-half between the main power lines bordering the Kandy-Kurunegala highway and our neighbourhood, halfway up the hill range adjacent to it.

Much enthusiasm, some skill and a great deal of sweat was willingly expended in the effort with those of us not having the physical capacity to participate, providing food and drink.

In due course the concrete posts went up and the high-tension cables, sans insulation of any kind, were strung.

Then came an extended period of inactivity, the reason for which was that those with the power to throw the switch and provide us with power were awaiting an election call which would provide the opportunity to celebrate their generosity towards us lesser mortals and reap our gratitude by way of “Xs” on ballot papers.

In the meantime, the (un-insulated) high tension cables proved a great source of entertainment and recreation for the troops of monkeys that have become the bane of the lives of people living in this area.  They frolicked along the cables, performing various acrobatic feats that would not otherwise have been possible because there had never been anything like these big “ropes” to frolic on.

At last an election campaign arrived and the senior politician for the area honoured us with his presence, lunching with one who had been a personal friend during their secondary education in a hill country school.  He then made the obligatory speech and threw the switch in a manner that would have befitted the Biblical command “Let there be light.”

Our simian neighbours took a while to wake up to the fact that it was no longer safe to use the power cables as some kind of acrobatic aid.  This meant that periodically there would be a loud bang, the “trip” would go off at the transformer from which the electricity was distributed to our neighbourhood and there would be an (electrocuted) monkey below the said power cables with no electricity for the (human) consumers!

This sequence of events would only be brought to a satisfactory conclusion when the local Central Electricity Board (CEB) sent one of its vehicles (if available) up our hill to have the power switched on again.

One of the factors that contributed to our neighbourhood being the acknowledged leader in the matter of power outages was the immediate problem of trees or branches from them falling on and breaking the power lines.

Mind you, the pathway for the power lines was initially cleared on the direction and under the supervision of staff from the CEB and it should have taken a significant amount of time before the surviving vegetation was tall enough to fall across the power lines.  Also, we were periodically deprived of power supply for a whole day at a time while a “maintenance crew,” was supposed to be removing any vegetation likely to fall across the power lines.

About all that these “maintenance crews” achieved was cutting down any vegetation that was easily reached from the ground, particularly plantain trees which didn’t have the capacity to grow tall enough to reach the power lines in the first place, strewing the results all over the roadway and in any drain that was handy, leaving, literally, a trail of debris and destruction in their wake. This necessitated those of us who had to use the road subsequently having to clear the obstructions they’d left in their wake before we could use what was supposed to be a public thoroughfare.

When I have raised this issue with the local head of the CEB, his excuse was that these were crews of “outsiders” working on contract from the CEB and that he had no control over these people’s conduct! His response to my question as to who could afford us relief in this regard was that he was that person!  If they were working under contract from the CEB and he was the local head of that essential service, it seemed redundant to even suggest that he should be able to do something about what we were being subjected to, don’t you think, dear reader? 

During the recent inclement weather, massive damage was done to the road, because the drains and culverts were blocked with the debris referred to earlier and the road constituted a veritable river. I can’t resist the temptation of repeating the fact that the reason for this state of affairs was that the culverts had been blocked by an accumulation of debris left behind by the CEB’s “maintenance´ crews. 

Perhaps the crowning indignity was that we were told that until and unless we made the road accessible to the CEB’s vehicles, the electrical repairs, inclusive of replacing a totally destroyed transformer, would not be effected.

Does this state of affairs deserve further comment or does it simply bring to mind the desperate need for a Sri Lankan Franz Kafka to chronicle our plight?

In our particular case we were able to better survive the calamity than our neighbours because we had a 50+ years old generator that we could crank up from time to time and keep our refrigeration equipment cool enough to save most of our food. Our neighbours were not so fortunate and ended up having to throw away what food they had in their refrigerators. These were not affluent members of the Sri Lankan middle class but poor rural folk, most of whom travelled several hours each day to their work as helpers in the building trades. The only way we were able to help out was by offering them access to electricity to charge up their mobile phones without access to which they’d have been in even more trouble.

After four days and all kinds of (volunteer) road-clearing by the residents, life returned to a semblance of normalcy.

What I have just described is not some once-in-a-lifetime experience but what is par for the course whenever we have some kind of even mildly inclement weather and often even in the absence of anything resembling such.  In fact, it is a matter of fact that one needs to keep a torch (flashlight) on one’s person at all times after dark because you, literally, don’t know when the lights will go out and for how long.

The responses we receive when we call the “out-of-order” line are beyond the ludicrous and will require more than a paragraph of description.  In fact, such an exercise would probably merit a complete article, which means such a dissertation will have to await another day and another column!

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