NEW DELHI – On one level, the power outage that stalled trains, snarled traffic and left hospitals scrambling across much of India was an example of business as usual – except, of course, that this time it covered an area including nearly 10 percent of the world’s population.
But taken another way, Tuesday’s massive blackout, the second in two days, underscored the yawning gap between India’s superpower dreams and a sweltering, gritty reality. Problems with an aging electrical grid, pricing system and inefficient mining practices combined to darken a stretch of northern and eastern India that is home to 600 million people, in the process illustrating deep structural problems.
Among them, analysts say, are a weak and indecisive national government, entrenched bureaucracy and a singular focus on local issues at the expense of the common good, all of which threaten foreign investment and undercut the aspirations of a young, vibrant population.
“The size of this is a surprise,” said Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor of the Hindustan Times newspaper. “But the fact it happened as a consequence of a whole series of micro-decisions not made is not.”
The trouble started shortly after midnight on Monday. India’s Northern Grid failed, affecting 300 million people in seven states. With the help of power diverted from neighboring states and as far away as Bhutan, service was restored by evening.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it collapsed again shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday, taking two more of the country’s five grids with it. That left the capital with only 1 percent of its usual power supply and tempers fraying in 90-degree heat.
The Power Grid Corp. of India reported late Tuesday that nearly all service was back to normal. Some 250 coal miners trapped underground when electrical pulley systems stopped were rescued, local media said.
Richa Hingorani, who works for a civic group in Delhi, countered the sweltering heat and lack of air conditioning by fanning herself with a newspaper for hours.
“With bumper-to-bumper traffic, it took me 40 minutes to travel a distance that should’ve taken 10 minutes,” she said. “There’s no Internet and little respite when you leave the office, since there are so many crowds.”
But many people took the crisis in stride. According to the latest census, one-third of the country’s 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity, even in the best of circumstances.
And rolling blackouts are common in Indian cities, given the aging grid, an increase in demand by millions buying new refrigerators and flat-screen televisions as they climb into the middle class, and a 9 percent shortfall in electricity at peak hours. Many houses and businesses have their own backup generators.
However, the collapse of an entire grid is rare: The latest such failure involving the northern grid occurred in 2001. Finger-pointing was well under way.
The business community, which has lobbied long and hard for better infrastructure, said the blackout was a wake-up call. Power outages undercut competitiveness, reducing India’s growth rate by an estimated 1.2 percent, according to the government’s Planning Commission.
“This situation is a grim reminder of the humongous task we have on our hands in improving the infrastructure facilities in the country,” R.V. Kanoria, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said in a statement.
Retroactive taxation and cumbersome licensing procedures have discouraged foreign investors at a time when India badly needs jobs for millions of its young people entering the workforce annually.
India’s economy grew by 5.3 percent in the first quarter, its slowest quarterly growth in nine years. Manufacturing, agriculture and services all lost momentum, while the call centers that have absorbed legions of young, well-educated Indians continued to hold their own.
Foreign analysts said that combined with other factors, the blackout was a worrying sign for India’s ability to keep attracting investment.
“I imagine this event will make for a larger number of people thinking of pulling out and moving out their investments, including back to the U.S.,” said Joel Kurtzman, a senior fellow at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Milken Institute and director of its Center for Accelerating Energy Solutions.
“If you’re doing a country risk assessment of where to go and where to stay, increased cost, a less willing political system and an unreliable grid are not good factors,” he said.
India has added significant coal-fired generating capacity in the past year, analysts said, but much of it sits idle because transmission lines can’t handle the added load. Meanwhile, government-influenced pricing driven more by politics than the market often leaves suppliers unwilling to meet demand.
Energy officials said the immediate causes of the blackout were unknown, adding that poor rains that limited hydroelectric generation and high temperatures related to this year’s weak monsoon could be factors.
State officials accused one another of exceeding their allocated share of power. Analysts said a weak central government is at times so worried about the next state or national election and so wary of offending small allies that it balks at decisions with a clear national benefit.
Opposition politicians slammed the government for mismanagement and policy paralysis.
“This lowers the esteem of the country in the eyes of the world,” said Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “The country is suffering.”
Meanwhile, the Delhi Metro suffered extensive delays, and some 350 longer-haul trains were affected nationwide.
While major airports and larger hospitals switched to backup generators, smaller hospitals and clinics were forced to postpone medical procedures or otherwise make do.
Delhi’s Holy Angel Hospital had backup power but still faced many problems, said Harish Chawla, a manager. “You can’t trust generators to keep running dependably for 10 or 12 hours,” he said. “We had to reschedule a surgery since it was risky to go ahead. And patients don’t want to risk an operation anyways during a power failure.”