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World & Nation

India’s power outage puts its superpower dreams in a new light

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% 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 the nation’s 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 India’s 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.”

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The trouble started early Monday. India’s northern grid failed, affecting 300 million people in seven states. With the help of power diverted from neighboring states and from as far away as Bhutan, service was restored by evening.

But the grid 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% of its usual power supply and tempers fraying in the 90-degree heat.

State-owned Power Grid Corp. of India reported late Tuesday that nearly all service was back to normal. About 250 coal miners trapped underground when electrical pulley systems stopped were rescued, news reports 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.

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“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.”

Many people took the crisis in stride. According to the last 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 India’s cities, given the aging grid, a 9% shortfall in electricity at peak hours, and the increase in demand as millions entering the middle class buy refrigerators and flat-screen TVs. Many houses and businesses have backup generators.

Still, the collapse of an entire grid is rare: The last such failure involving the northern grid occurred in 2001.

Finger-pointing over this week’s blackouts was well underway.

The business community, which has lobbied long and hard for better infrastructure, said it was a wake-up call. Power failures undercut competitiveness, reducing India’s growth rate by an estimated 1.2%, 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 the millions of young people entering the workforce annually.

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India’s economy grew by 5.3% in the first quarter, its slowest quarterly growth in nine years. Manufacturing, agriculture and construction 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 worrisome sign for India’s ability to attract 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-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 last year, analysts said, but much of it is unused 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, but said below-average rainfall, which limited hydroelectric generation, and the 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.

Some said India should be judged by the significant progress it’s made since it started to reform its economy two decades ago. The government announced after the first grid failure Monday that it was appointing a three-member panel to study the causes and submit a report within 15 days.

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It appeared unlikely that the official responsible for the grid would pay a political price. In the midst of the blackout, Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was named home minister, which is considered a promotion.

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 for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “The country is suffering.”

Meanwhile, the Delhi Metro was hit by extensive delays and about 350 longer-haul trains were affected nationwide.

“This has been a big worry,” said Shobha Agrawal, 49, reached by phone on a train from Chandigarh to Mathura that was several hours late. “And my son’s very anxious back at home since I’m traveling alone.”

Major airports and larger hospitals switched to backup generators, but smaller hospitals and clinics were forced to postpone 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 anyway during a power failure.”

Problems in the power sector mirror those elsewhere in the government and the economy. A series of corruption scandals has allegedly cost the treasury tens of billions of dollars. It’s estimated that as much as 30% of India’s food spoils before it reaches the consumer, as millions of citizens go hungry, but reforms of the retail, storage and distribution system have stalled.

“For the power cut to hit the political nerve center of the country should make heads turn,” said Vasudha Sinha, 31, a media worker. “Of course this makes India look bad abroad.”

Citing a past national marketing campaign, she said, “The light has finally gone out of ‘India Shining.’”

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tanvi Sharma of The Times’ New Delhi bureau and staff writer Ricardo Lopez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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