A fire in a hydroelectric station located close to unlimited quantities of water would seem to be a contradiction, but as the deadly blaze in the Srisailam power plant shows, the risk is very real. Nine people, including five engineers, perished in the facility on the Telangana-Andhra Pradesh border. At 900 MW capacity, the plant on the left bank canal of the Krishna is one of the biggest contributors to the Telangana State Power Generation Corporation; another branch serves Andhra Pradesh. What makes the accident more disturbing is that it comes as another shock in a season of disasters. Industries and power plants in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Telangana have been wracked by accidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Srisailam, the fire appears to have started in a control panel during maintenance. The victims were unable to make an exit through an escape tunnel and were overwhelmed by smoke, while others at a different level could flee in time. Going by official accounts, the smoke made it difficult even for rescue personnel to enter the four-storeyed structure. Moreover, videos made by staff present a spectacle of a small fire rapidly engulfing the working area, trapping the personnel and leaving little room for manoeuvre. Telangana has instituted a CID inquiry, apart from the plant operator’s own probe. But an external technical audit with no conflicts of interest could better serve the objective, identifying lacunae to stop a future catastrophe. It can determine why the victims could not make a safe exit, as per standard procedure.
Large hydroelectric power plants are usually built well below surface level, where generation, control and transmission equipment are located. Handling a fire becomes complicated in such circumstances, and safety features have to be extremely reliable. IEEE standards for substation fire protection, issued a quarter century ago, lay down norms for fixed and portable ventilation systems that can remove heavy smoke — as seen in Srisailam. Use of fire-retardant materials in construction, dual exits, easy vertical escape routes using staircases and alarm systems are all part of safety codes. Whether these features were available in the Telangana power plant, and if they were, why the personnel could not use them to quickly escape the inferno should be investigated. The dam fire is primarily the State government’s responsibility, but the Centre should take the opportunity to review safety in places such as Jharkhand, where extensive underground coal field fires have affected remote communities. India loses many lives to fires each year: at 12,748 accidental deaths in 2018, nearly double the number caused by forces of nature, according to NCRB data. Only a rigorous adherence to safety codes can reduce this shocking toll.