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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Photo via Associated Press