Last week saw more fires in Mumbai and elsewhere. The catch word, in all cases, was 'Short Circuit'. But short circuits are not an ACT OF GOD. They are man-made, involving carelessness, negligence, monetary shortcuts and blatant flouting of the rules, sheer recklessness. The truth is that there is no need for a single short circuit to occur; and when there is one, investigators must examine whether a charge of probable homicide, without actual intent, can be charged on the person responsible. Even if there is 'misfeasance' or ‘non-feasance’. Is there a dilution of a duty of care?
Technically speaking, an electrical short-circuit occurs when two live electrical wires come in contact with each other. The immediate effect is to blow a fuse and save the building as well as lives. Yet, this is more often not the case.
A FUSE IS MEANT TO BLOW
A fuse is not for show.
Here we need to know a little bit about the ‘FUSE’. A fuse is short-form for ‘fusible wire’. This wire is very thin and is, usually, a mixture (alloy) of two or more metals. It is designed to burn up (fuse) when heated. So, when an electrical system fails, either due to overloading or faulty equipment, the fuse itself ‘blows’.
Electricity cuts off and lives are saved. In actual practice, however, fuses are either by-passed or over-sized, thereby not doing the job they were meant to.
An analogy is a water pipe. If the pressure is too high, the pipe bursts. Similarly, if the load on the electrical system is too heavy, the fuse melts, thus avoiding a fire.
But, if the fuse is replaced by either a thicker wire, or is made redundant by bypassing, the electrical pressure will attack the system elsewhere; the cable coverings will melt and fire will engulf the building.
LOAD AND OVERLOAD
The most frequent cause of fires is over-loading. A Mid-Eastern parable will illustrate our point. An Arab merchant would transport hay on his camel’s back. The more hay he carried every trip, the more money he made. So he would load the camel to the limit. One day, he saw a blade of grass on the ground. He did not wish to waste it; so he picked it up. And he put it on the camel. And the camel’s back broke. That one extra sliver of hay did do it in. Hence the saying, ‘The last straw on the camel’s back’.
All electric systems are designed to take care of a certain number of equipments.
Say one refrigerator, a TV, 12 lights of 40 watts each, a microwave of 750 watts, an iron, fans, air-conditioners, a stove and OTG, etc. The meter has a limited capacity based on the actual calculated load and the electricity distributor charges accordingly. As time passes, more equipment is added. Geysers, additional air-conditioners, bigger ovens, cold storage facilities, all that prosperity can buy. It all adds up and, if the fuse blows, someone, instead of studying the real problem, blames the fuse as sub-standard. It gets replaced with a larger size. Then one day, the camel’s back breaks. The ensuing havoc kills people.
People who care, take the necessary precautions. They get a qualified electrical engineer to check the load-bearing capacity. He certifies it or asks for additional cabling and a larger meter, circuit-breakers, safety tripping switches. Yet, this is seldom the case. This critical dependence is placed on the local electrician; actually a fitter at best. It isn’t money saved, it’s an invitation to death. But even as you and I take care, it isn’t enough. Here’s why.
What about our neighbour? And the other neighbours? In every building or office, in every shop or establishment, 99% of the occupants pay no heed. One is surrounded by lethal installations occupied by uncaring people contracting to incompetent contractors. They put everyone’s life at risk, including that of the person passing by.
MONEY SAVED, LIVES LOST
Cheap equipment is used. Thin-gauge internal electric cables are installed. Fuses are replaced by thick wires. Concealed wiring is carried out without due ventilation. Earthing is inadequate. Cables are laid below the floor tiles or above flammable false ceilings. Connections are made without connectors. Plugs and sockets used get heated even when within specified limits. Heavy cables are put up in haphazard ways, usually hanging like clothes lines. Workers never seem to use plugs; bare wires are inserted in sockets with matchsticks to wedge them in. A slight spark, with inflammables, like paint vapours or gas close by, can easily cause an explosion.
I may take care. After reading this, you too may take care. But what about your neighbour? And mine? Is he going to give a tuppence?
UBI JUS IBI REMEDIUM
We sincerely believe in the dictum that where there is a malady, there has to be a remedy. Some days ago, while walking along Gowalia Tank, one saw fire engines parked below a building. On querying, the reason given was, Yes, a 'Short Circuit'. It involved an office in the building. With the fire brigade station just a hundred metres away, no casualties happened. But it cannot be touch-and-go every time.
Short circuits do not just happen. They are caused.
This brings us to the headline. The law does not wait for a crime to be committed before effecting arrest. Even the intention of criminal activity is enough for the police to swing into action. Is not a 'Short Circuit' prone house, shop or office, or factory, or theatre, any less culpable and dangerous? Shouldn’t possible perpetrators be prosecuted? And, in case of disasters, shouldn’t those responsible be severely punished? Is the causing of death, multiple deaths, just to save a few rupees, not a 'murderous' activity? And, if the laws are in place, isn’t implementation needed? And fast.
Now, the question that remains: Who will bell that cat?
(The authors are both advocates with the Bombay High Court.)