In 2008, Viswajeet V Nikam lost his leg to an accident when a tree fell on him. While the tragic incident failed to rob him of his spirit, it is the events that followed the mishap which took him to the edge of despair. The 48-year-old claims that the fire department and his colleagues have discriminated against him and used his disability to prevent him from making progress in his career.
Since the accident, he went from being an assistant divisional fire officer to signing musters for the hamaal, the lowest among class IV category staff. His duty allowance was also cut down from that of 24-hour-shifts to eight-hour shifts.
A special court recently ordered the Fire Brigade to compensate the salary he lost since the accident, and to reinstate him as a fire officer.
Full of promise
Son of late chief fire officer V B Nikam, he had worked as a fire officer for 24 years when tragedy struck. He was the senior-most fire officer in his batch of 1988, and was slated to become the chief fire officer of the Mumbai Fire Brigade, with the longest possible long nine-year-long tenure as CFO laid out before his retirement.
Twist of fate
Nikam’s tragic reversal of fortune occurred on October 6, 2008 — he was heading towards his car after picking up his wife, when a roadside banyan tree fell on him. Nikam was rushed to a local hospital and later to Bombay hospital, where the surgeons had to amputate his left leg to prevent septicemia. His spine too was operated for an L1 fracture. For the next few months, he recuperated in a hospital and rehabilitation centre at Haji Ali.
The fire department had initially promised that they would bear the medical expenses, but no financial assistance was offered for his hospitalisation. The department had also promised him a prosthetic leg, but didn’t get him one. Nikam had to foot the bill of Rs 1 lakh for his artificial leg, and spend Rs 12 lakh for his hospitalisation and medicines.
But the biggest blow came from unexpected quarters — Nikam claims that his own colleagues, instead of offering support, started treating him like dirt.
Some of the junior officers were promoted while his promotion was withheld, on the grounds of his disability.
Nikam said, “This was deliberate — being the senior-most fire officer, I had a better chance than my juniors become the chief fire officer, and would have held the post for nine long years. This means that other junior officers would not have the chance to enjoy the post.”
Nikam was also bewildered by the disability assessment parameters — the rulebooks say that the smallest amputation, even that of a fingertip — labels the amputee 85 per cent disabled.
“In my case, I am fit in all aspects, and can perform all my regular activities. Then how can I be declared 90 per cent disabled and unfit for administrative task in the department?” he questioned.
Chief Commissioner for Disability, Prasanna Kumar Pincha said, “There is a mandate on the BMC to follow the order passed by the state commissioner for disability.”
The other side
Chief fire officer S V Joshi said, “He has already been declared 90 per cent disabled by the government’s institution for the disabled. Fire department officials have to handle both operational and administrative tasks, and Nikam is not fit for any operational duty. So we have given him eight-hour work shifts instead of 24-hour ones.”
Former chief fire officer B D Khargupikar said, “It is unfortunate that instead of treating Nikam as a fellow officer with respect, the department is treating him like dirt. He is an able fire officer – the department and BMC should respect his expertise.”
BMC commissioner Sitaram Kunte said, “I am unaware of the case, and will look into the court order before I comment.”