By JIM YARDLEY and GARDINER HARRIS
Published: July 31, 2012 by the New York Times
NEW DELHI — It had all the makings of a disaster movie: More than half a billion people without power. Trains motionless on the tracks. Miners trapped underground. Subway lines paralyzed. Traffic snarled in much of the national capital.
India suffered the largest electrical blackout in history on Tuesday, affecting an area encompassing about 670 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the world’s population. Three of the country’s interconnected northern power grids collapsed for several hours, as blackouts extended almost 2,000 miles, from India’s eastern border with Myanmar to its western border with Pakistan.
For a country considered a rising economic power, Blackout Tuesday — which came only a day after another major power failure — was an embarrassing reminder of the intractable problems still plaguing India: inadequate infrastructure, a crippling power shortage and, many critics say, a yawning absence of governmental action and leadership.
India’s coalition government, already battered for its stewardship of a wobbling economy, again found itself on the defensive, as top ministers could not definitively explain what had caused the grid failure or why it had happened on consecutive days. Theories for the extraordinarily extensive blackout across much of northern India included excessive demands placed on the grid from certain regions, due in part to low monsoon rains that forced farmers to pump more water to their fields, and the less plausible possibility that large solar flares had set off a failure.
By Tuesday evening, power had been restored in most regions, and many people in major cities barely noticed the disruption, because localized blackouts are so common that many businesses, hospitals, offices and middle-class homes are equipped with backup diesel fuel generators.
But that did not prevent people from being furious, especially after the government chose Tuesday to announce a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle — in which the power minister was promoted to take over the home ministry, one of the country’s most important positions.
“This is a huge failure,” said Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “It is a management failure as well as a failure of policy. It is policy paralysis in the power sector.”
For millions of ordinary people, Tuesday brought frustration and anger; for some, there was fear. As nighttime arrived, Kirti Shrivastava, 49, a housewife in the eastern city of Patna, said power had not been restored in her neighborhood.
“There is no water, no idea when electricity will return,” she said. “We are really tense. Even the shops have now closed. Now we hope it is not an invitation to the criminals!”
Tuesday also brought havoc to India’s railroad network, one of the busiest in the world. Across the country, hundreds of trains were stalled on the tracks for hours before service resumed. At the bustling New Delhi Railway Station, Jaswant Kaur, 62, found herself stranded after a miserable day. Her initial train was stopped by the power failure. By the time she reached New Delhi, her connecting train was already gone.
“Now my pocket is empty,” she said. “I am hungry. I am tired. The government is responsible.”
Sushil Kumar Shinde, the power minister, who spoke to reporters in the afternoon, did not specify what caused the grid breakdown but blamed several northern states for consuming too much power from the national system. “I have asked my officers to penalize those states which are drawing more power than their quota,” said Mr. Shinde, whose promotion was announced a few hours later.
Surendra Rao, formerly India’s top electricity regulator, said the national grid had a sophisticated system of circuit breakers that should have prevented such a blackout. But he attributed this week’s problems to the bureaucrats who control the system, saying that civil servants are beholden to elected state leaders who demand that more power be diverted to their regions — even if doing so threatens the stability of the national grid.
“The dispatchers at both the state and the regional level should have cut off the customers who were over-drawing, and they didn’t,” Mr. Rao said. “That has to be investigated.”
India’s power sector has long been considered a potentially crippling hindrance to the country’s economic prospects. Part of the problem is access; more than 300 million people in India still have no electricity. But India’s power generation capacity also has not kept pace with growth; in March, for example, demand outpaced supply by 10.2 percent, according to government statistics.
In recent years, India’s government has set ambitious goals for expanding power generation capacity, and while new plants have come online, many more have faced delays, whether because of bureaucratic entanglements, environmental concerns or other problems. India depends on coal for more than half of its power generation, but production has barely increased, meaning that some power plants are idled for lack of coal.
Many analysts have long predicted that India’s populist politics were creating an untenable situation in the power sector, because the government is selling electricity at prices lower than the cost of generating it. India’s public distribution utilities are now in deep debt, which makes it more difficult to encourage investment in the power sector. Tuesday’s blackout struck some analysts as evidence of a system in distress.
“It’s like a day of reckoning coming nearer,” said Rajiv Kumar, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
India’s major business centers of Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad were not affected by the blackout, since they are in the southern and central parts of the country that proved to be immune from the failure.
Phillip F. Schewe, a specialist in electricity and author of the book “The Grid,” said the demand pressures on India’s system could set off the sort of breakdown that occurred on Tuesday. In cases when demand outstrips the power supply, the system of circuit breakers must be activated, often manually, to reduce some of the load in what are known as rolling blackouts. But if workers cannot trip those breakers fast enough, Mr. Schewe said a failure could cascade into a much larger blackout.
Some experts attributed excessive demand in part to the lower levels of monsoon rains falling on India this year, which has forced many farmers to turn to electric pumps to draw water from underground.
It was unclear how long it would take to restore power fully in areas still lacking it — or if the problem would recur later this week. In Lucknow, capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Dr. Sachendra Raj said his private hospital was using two large, rented generators to maintain enough electricity for air-conditioners and dialysis machines.
“It’s a very common problem,” he said of power failures. “It’s part and parcel of our daily life.”
Meanwhile, about 200 coal miners in the state of West Bengal were stranded in underground mines when the electricity to the elevators was shut off, according to reports in the Indian news media. “We are waiting for the restoration of power to bring them up through the lifts, but there is no threat to their lives or any reason to panic,” said Nildari Roy, a senior official at Eastern Coalfields Ltd., which operates the mine. By late evening, most of the miners had been rescued, news services reported.
Ramachandra Guha, an Indian historian, said that the blackout was only the latest evidence of government dysfunction in India. On Monday, he noted, 32 people died in a train fire in the state of Tamil Nadu — a reminder that the nation’s railway system, like the electrical system, is underfinanced and in dire need of upgrading.
“India needs to stop strutting on the world stage like it’s a great power, Mr. Guha said, “and focus on its deep problems within.”
Reporting was contributed by Heather Timmons, Sruthi Gottipati, Niharika Mandhana and Hari Kumar from New Delhi; Vikas Bajaj from Mumbai, India; Raksha Kumar from Patna, India; James Glanz from New York; and Matthew Wald from Washington.