Death hangs overhead on the highways

On March 23, MiD DAY had reported about a freak accident on the Western Express Highway (WEH) near Andheri. Israr Khan (27) lost his life after an overhead cable across the road snapped and slit his throat while he was riding his bike.

Authorities have dismissed the incident as a one-off. But it has exposed the ever-present peril looming over commuters on the city’s roads, specially the Western and Eastern Express Highways. What’s to stop wires dangling haphazardly over roads from snapping and claiming a life on the road again? 

So who’s answerable? MiD DAY found out that cable operators frequently flout norms out of ignorance or recklessness, and hook wires on the first support they stumble upon when in fact the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has made it mandatory that they should all be laid underground.

As for the authorities, they let the cables be because “that’s how it has been and nobody has ever complained.”  Moreover, the airspace in which the cable wires precariously hang doesn’t come under anyone’s jurisdiction.

So it’s nobody’s headache; there’s no one accountable for preventing the breach of regulation. As per our ground investigations, certain spots on the highways give easy access to cable operators keen to reach as many households in the suburbia.

On the Western Express Highway (WEH), at several stretches between Bandra and Dahisar, and on the EEH, between Sion and Thane, wires are seen dangling for meters together right above our heads, from street light posts, buildings, electric poles, billboards, even trees. Webs of pendulous wires droop at several spots within city limits as well.

“It is mandatory for the cable operators to lay their cables below the road. But they hang them from one building to another, exploiting the airspace. Under the circumstances we cannot do anything as the airspace doesn’t fall under our jurisdiction,” said an official from the public works department, under whose jurisdiction fall both the EEH (23 km) and WEH (25 km).

In 2011, there were over 25,471 accidents on roads of which 563 people lost their lives. Mumbai Traffic Police’s records show that many accidents occurred at different spots on the highways, namely at Vikhroli, Bhandup, Kanjurmarg, Vile Parle, and Kandivli.


Easy way up: Cable operators prefer overhead wires as laying them does not involve the long-winded and costly process of obtaining permissions from various BMC and other agencies. Pic/Nimesh Dave

Traffic officials claim that Israr Khan’s death case is a rarity, but concur that cable wires are placed on top of streetlights for support, illegally. While power distribution companies in Mumbai claim their cables go underground as it is mandatory, the same cannot be said of cable wires.

Cable operators prefer overhead wires as they are cost-effective. Their laying does not involve the tedious process of obtaining permissions, as in the case of underground connectivity, from at least 10 different agencies including BMC departments — road, fire, water supply and sewerage departments, PWD, power distribution companies like BEST, RInfra, Tata Power, Mahanagar Gas Ltd, and others.

In order to stop the wires from swaying, they cover it with optical fibres or metal. The costs escalate as the roads in the city aren’t straight but sinuous.

Roop Sharma, president, Cable Operators Federation of India, said, “Cable operators have no choice but to take the wires overhead because the BMC takes a long time to grant permissions to lay wires underground and the costs  are exorbitant.

TRAI recommendation of ‘right of way’ should be implemented promptly so operators are granted permission at a nominal price to lay the cables underneath. The move will also benefit consumers as they will be charged less for services.”

A cable operator who relays from Juhu to Vile Parle said on the condition of anonymity, “Operators incur more expenses for installing wires underneath the ground as digging and miscellaneous costs considerably increase the installation expenses. Installing overhead wires is much cheaper. Also, acquiring permission for overhead wires is easier, as we need to obtain it from the buildings to which we anchor the wires.”

Some opine that overhead wires have been the norm since as far as they can remember, and operators just continue with the arrangement.
A Mulund-based cable operator said, “Mostly, small cable operators prefer overhead wires as they are cheaper, or almost free of cost. If an operator chooses to install the wires underneath, he would have to shell out around Rs 60-80 per metre of wire per month.”

TRAI guidelines Right of Way, Sep 14, ‘O5:
The cost of digital cable services per user can be substantially brought down in case service from a digital head end is supplied to a larger area through optical fibre cable network. The right of way is not available to MSOs/cable operators as they are not licensed under Section 4 of the ITA. In the absence of this right, it may not be always possible for an MSO/cable operator to lay their optical fibre network and may have to depend on telecom operators for lease of their optical fibre network. 

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