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India Sweats Through Worst Blackout in History

India Sweats Through Worst Blackout in History


The past two days have seen the worst blackout in ten years in India and (says the New York Times) “in history,” with half the country without power.

The massive power outage highlights a central challenge faced by the nation of 1.2 billion and raises questions about whether the country has so far allocated sufficient resources to building its power grid. India has experienced unparalleled economic development and a growing middle class and, as a result, significant increases in the demand for electricity. In March, demand exceeded supply by 10.2 percent, as government statistics revealed.

Stranded in the Dark

India has five electricity grids, northern, eastern, north-eastern, southern and western; all are interconnected except for the southern one. In the past two days, twenty of the country’s twenty-eight states experienced power cuts, leaving government workers, police, barbers, students and countless others to rely on candles. Thousands of train passengers have been stranded on the busiest train system in the world (and also in train stations), massive traffic jams have occurred with traffic lights not functioning and nurses at a hospital outside Delhi had to manually operate equipment after backup generators failed.

People vented their frustrations about the power outage on — where else does one vent publicly these days — Twitter:

Metro line in Delhi down after power grid fails. Reminiscent of pre liberalisation years of black outs & nights spent on carrier of old fiat — barkha dutt (July 29, 2012)

No electricity -> no water, no Metro, no traffic lights, airport on standby, cellphones dying, hospitals on ventilators. A storm is coming. — Suhel Banerjee (July 29, 2012)

The power outage highlights still-existing disparities in Indian society. Numerous businesses, hospitals, offices and middle-class homes have backup diesel fuel generators as localized blackouts are common. But plenty of people do not have ready access to electricity as the Guardian notes,

…one-third of India’s households do not even have electricity to power a light bulb, according to the 2011 census.

A large minority of those in the blackout zone have never been connected to any grid – just 16.4% of the 100 million people who live in the central-eastern state of Bihar have access to electricity, compared with 96.6% in Punjab in the west.

India’s coalition government has been on the defensive, with ministers unable to give a definitive answer for the outages. Indeed, on Tuesday, just as power was being (somewhat) restored, the government announced a cabinet reshuffle with Sushil Kumar Shinde being promoted to take over the home ministry. Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, described the vast blackout as a “huge failure” and indeed a “paralysis” of management and of policy.

A Failure of Power of the Political Kind?

The government does have plans, and “ambitious” ones, to expand power generation capacity, says the New York Times, but “bureaucratic entanglements,” concerns about the environment and India’s continued reliance on coal even though production has not increased have all meant delays. Analysts indeed say that ”India’s populist politics [have been] creating an untenable situation in the power sector, because the government is selling electricity at prices lower than the cost of generating it”; the country’s public distribution utilities are all in debt.

In the Guardian, Harry Dhaul, director general of the Independent Power Producers Association of India (Ippai), also pointed to India’s politics as the reason for its not keeping up with China’s infrastructure:

“In China, if they want to build a hydroelectric dam and someone complains about it, it doesn’t matter – in 24 hours he has been relocated and the building work starts. We can’t do that in India.”

The massive blackout is only one challenge facing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Bloomberg notes that economic growth has slowed the most in a decade, drought is likely and the government faces policy reversals and corruption charges. As Ashish Shakya tweeted on July 30:

Q. What do you call a power failure in Delhi? A. Manmohan Singh


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8:32AM PDT on Aug 20, 2012

Sue G, We are no different from India, If America was not so corrupt, you would be solarized by now.

4:44PM PDT on Aug 10, 2012

If India wasn't so corrupt they'd have solar energy by now. All that sunshine going to waste. Shameful!

9:11AM PDT on Aug 9, 2012

Kimberlee W.

The Answer: It took him 14 months and in that 14 months it took him 1400 attempts to make the light bulb.

A reporter came asked Edison, "How many times are you going to fail at creating the light bulb?" Mr. Edison replied, "Son, I haven't failed! I've simply discovered another way not to invent the light bulb!"

He went on to say, "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

4:22PM PDT on Aug 7, 2012


12:13PM PDT on Aug 6, 2012

India's blackout is another harbinger of things to come. They, the Indian people are realizing a strong demand for much of what we take for granted.

Currently, they are experiencing a droughts, which has caused farmers to power up their water pumps and well pumps. This was more than their antiquated electrical system could handle, I will not prove to be a one time event.

They are sorely in need of funding to upgrade their system, but where will such cash infusion come from?

8:04AM PDT on Aug 6, 2012

This is INDIA....what do you expect?????????

10:47PM PDT on Aug 4, 2012

The worst blackout ever? I don't believe so. I think the worst ever was when Edison's first light bulb went out.

All things being relative - - - -

10:39AM PDT on Aug 4, 2012


10:05AM PDT on Aug 4, 2012

India could not organize a pi..s up in a brewery.

7:14PM PDT on Aug 3, 2012

A key culprit in the Indian blackout is climate disruption - farmers there rely heavily on the grid to power irrigation pumps, and that pushed their already stressed system into overload.

The same phenomenon delaying the Indonesian Monsoon has also affected the U.S. Midwest and South - the typical summer hurricanes in the Caribbean that bring rain at this time are late, our crops are dying and we also have had some blackouts.

Major climate change is disrupting normal weather patterns. Solar power, anyone?

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