India’s Epic Blackout Sparks Anger at Politicians, Doubts over Development

A second blackout in 24 hours left over 600 million Indians without power, as the country sweltered and work ground to a halt. Now many fear the country's long-standing infrastructure woes have come home to roost

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Bikas Das / AP

An Indian barber holding a candle, gives a haircut to a customer in Kolkata, India, on July 31, 2012.

On Tuesday evening, most houses in the village of Chhalera, around an hour’s drive from the capital, New Delhi, were in darkness. Residents ran out of water — as electric pumps could not be operated — and sweated it out in the humid heat. Men sat around in groups on charpoys, smoking and pondering the reasons for this sudden blackout, while women gave up the wait for power and tried to get dinner going by candlelight. No one in India is a stranger to power cuts, which are a regular occurrence in the summers. However, regular power outages last a couple of hours at the most. “The light has been gone since afternoon today,” says Mayna Devi. Her two children sit beside her, studying by a flickering candle. They have exams on Wednesday morning. “When is it going to be back? It is so hot and it is difficult to carry out daily chores in candlelight. And it’s been many hours now.”

If she could have turned on her television, she would have known that what she was experiencing was one of the world’s biggest blackouts, which swept across a massive stretch of northern and eastern India at 1 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, plunging about half of the country — over 600 million people — into darkness. The failure of three major national power grids — the northern, eastern and northeastern grids — toppled power supply in 20 out of India’s 28 states. India has five electricity grids — northern, eastern, northeastern, southern and western. All of them are interconnected, except for the Southern grid.
Out of these, the three affected grids carry about 50,000 MW of electricity. And when these crashed, so did much of vast, teeming India for at least six straight hours.

(PHOTOS: Blackout Leaves 620 Million Indians Without Power)

The consequences were legion: trains — overground and underground — came to a standstill; nonfunctioning traffic lights meant huge traffic snarls on roads; electric crematoriums shut down with half-burned bodies; hospitals, offices and factories had to switch to back up generators; hundreds of miners were trapped in a coal mine in West Bengal, where the chief minister declared a holiday to make sure workers either stayed home or left their offices. In New Delhi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party called the outage an “unparalleled occurrence” and said it was the result of mismanagement by the central government. The epic blackout was just the second grid failure in the past 24 hours — on Monday, parts of northern India had experienced hours of blackout when the northern grid failed, leaving some 300 million people in the dark. These back-to-back failures have led observers to question how the government has managed the country’s creaky energy infrastructure, while also raising pointed concerns over the growing demand for electricity in India — a demand that outstrips present means of supply.

According to India’s Central Electricity Authority, India has been facing an annual power shortfall of 8%, which had peaked in recent months. A weak monsoon and an exceptionally hot summer this year has meant more electricity consumption especially in the agrarian states where farmers have had to depend on pumps and irrigation systems in the absence of rain. This year, authorities and businesses alike have resorted to desperate measures: in June, many shopping malls in Delhi and its satellite towns turned off their air conditioners despite the sweltering heat, and the Labour Department issued a notice for shops to close early for 15 days, just to save power. Such measures obviously did not work, and overconsumption led to states overdrawing from the national grids. “Everyone overdraws from the grid,” said outgoing Power Minister Sushil Shinde, who in a much criticized move was promoted to the top post of Home Minister on Tuesday evening at the backdrop of the two biggest power outages in the country’s history. “Just this morning, I held a meeting with power officials from the states, and I gave directions that states that overdraw should be punished. We have given instructions that their power supply could be cut.” The Central Electricity Regulatory Commission recently revealed that states like Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous, overdraws almost 26 million units every day, Haryana around 13 million units and Punjab around 5.2 million units every day.

(MORE: How Climate Change and the Monsoons Affect India’s Blackouts)

And while heads started to roll in the aftermath of the outage — the chairman of Uttar Pradesh State Power Corporation was transferred without a fresh posting — 82% of power has been restored in northern India, including 100% in Delhi. In eastern India, 65% supply had been restored at the time of writing, and it was expected that by midnight, power would be fully restored all over the country. But, even as the lights flicker on throughout India, will they turn on in the minds of its politicians and economic planners?