Blackouts shine light on India’s failings

massive power failure at a local market in Calcutta, IndiaBy Amy Kazmin in New Delhi

Jaivir Singh, a 32-year-old property developer, was in his office in Gurgaon, a hub of modern office blocks and high-rise apartments near New Delhi, on Tuesday when the lights and television went out, and the back-up battery on his desktop computer started beeping.

Within minutes, the lights and televisions flickered back to life. The huge diesel- fuelled generators in his building – which also houses north India’s largest medical laboratory – had kicked in. It appeared to be one of the routine power cuts that punctuate the working day in India’s “millennium city”.

“On average, the electricity goes off once or twice a day,” Mr Singh says. “In the peak summer season, we are pretty much running between 10 to 14 hours on back-up power. Most of the top industry in the region is already prepared for downtime like this.”

Yet cocooned in his comfortably air-conditioned office, Mr Singh was in the middle of a sweeping power failure that cut electricity supplies to half of India’s 1.2bn people across the northern and eastern parts of the country for nearly 10 hours.

The blackout, the world’s biggest ever, was the second significant power failure in as many days, triggered by the collapse of India’s strained electricity distribution grid twice in less than 36 hours. Even for a resilient population, and companies, inured to frequent power cuts, the sheer magnitude of the back-to-back blackouts has been a jolt.

“This affected so many people at the same time,” Mr Singh says. “This hits us in the face very starkly – it’s an absolute dent to the idea of India shining.”

Sumit Ganguly, a Calcutta-born professor of political science at Indiana University visiting India, says the sweeping blackouts should be a “wake-up moment” for elite Indians who believe their country can progress, despite the failure of basic public services.

“The alarm clock has gone off,” Mr Ganguly says. “It’s saying ‘you can’t sleep any more’. There are structural bottlenecks in the economy that need to be addressed not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow, not a week from now, but now.’”

India is, in fact, far better prepared to cope with such massive blackouts than elsewhere in the world. Per capita power use is already low, just a quarter of the global average. And with power demand exceeding supply by 10 to 12 per cent in the peak summer season, nearly every Indian is accustomed to frequent and long interruptions to their electricity supply.

“All of us know there is a power problem but all of us have accepted it,” says Kapil Chopra, general manager of the five-star Oberoi Hotel, Gurgaon, a few miles north of New Delhi. “This has brought to the fore what people have accepted as a way of life.”

Nearly 300m of India’s poorest citizens in remote areas are totally “off-grid”, living without any access to electricity at all. Even in rural areas that have electricity in theory, many villages receive reliable power only during politically sensitive sowing seasons – such as now – to irrigate their recently planted crops.

In urban areas, millions of people and most businesses have generators or other back-up systems to cope with what is quaintly known as “load-shedding” – the deliberate disconnect of entire neighbourhoods from the power grid when demand exceeds supply.

There is a whole parallel economy operating on back-up power

- Kapil Chopra, general manager Oberoi Hotel

From New Delhi International Airport to five-star hotels, large manufacturing industries and modern office complexes, most large businesses, as well as institutions such as hospitals, rely on huge diesel generators to keep operations humming when the power goes.

Shops and restaurants, small offices, and many middle class households also have small generators, or large battery systems, widely sold in India, that can keep fans, lights, computers and other small appliances running for up to eight hours.

During this week’s blackouts, Indian television news channels broadcast without interruption to an audience of hundreds of millions of people, angrily keeping abreast of the developments on their generator-, or battery-powered televisions.

“There is a whole parallel economy operating on back-up power,” says Mr Chopra. “If you do any service – a mall, a residential building, you have to have power back-up.

“There is no hotel – even a one-star – that doesn’t have a power back-up facility. Any other city may have been paralysed, but here everybody has a contingency plan in place already.”

Yet even India’s back-up systems were strained by this week’s power grid collapse. Hundreds of trains were delayed, several hundred coal miners were trapped below ground before they could be rescued, the New Delhi Metro was forced to suspend service for two hours and mobile phone communication was put under heavy strain.

Bhavya Singh, an 18-year-old college student, says it took her nearly two hours to find alternative transport – a shared auto rickshaw – to take her from New Delhi to her home 15 miles away once the metro stopped. “There were many old people who were having difficulty in finding something to get to the places they were going,” she says.

At Quick Electronics – an appliance shop in south Delhi, owner Baljit Singh complains that business dried up on Tuesday after his back-up power system failed during the seven-hour blackout. Petrol stations also saw long queues as people sought fuel for their generators. “It was totally dark, and so hot and humid, no one came in,” says Mr Singh.

But more than just a disruption to daily life, the blackouts were an uncomfortable reality check for India. “Superpower India, RIP”, The Economic Times mourned in Wednesday’s banner headline. The accompanying article declared the blackouts were “an unflattering picture of an aspiring superpower struggling to provide even basic power”.

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