India Grapples with Second Power Grid Failure


Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 14:43 PM EDT, 31 July 2012

Indian Boy Waits on Powerless Train, Photo by MultimediapreNEW DELHI – On, Monday, 30 July 2012, India suffered a major power grid failure which affected over half of India's 1.2 billion people or more than the combined populations of the United States, Canada, and Mexico according to 2011 census reports.

By early evening officials were reporting that around 40% of power was back up, but electricity had not been restored to many residents who live in or have been stranded in the heat inundated capital. In order to restore this power, India was forced to buy extra power from Bhutan, a tiny country that lies between India and China.

Bhutan is reportedly less than 40,000 sq. km/15,000 sq. miles, and has a population of roughly 700,000 people, yet the power that India purchased from them helped restore lights to more 300 million people affected by the blackout.

Just as India seemed on the verge of moving into the amelioration versus crisis management phase of this problem, another collapse occurred on Tuesday, shortly after 13:00 pm and cascaded throughout the eastern and northern grids in quick succession. This latest power failure has affected an additional 600 million people.

These two power failures have been identified as the world’s largest power grid collapse, though India experienced a similar power crisis in the northern grid in 2001. Though this grid failure is the result of an overtaxed, non-redundant power system, it should also serve as a grim reminder of the vulnerability of any power grid system due to poor planning, reliance on a single source of power, or natural and man-made disasters.

In the case of India, these two disasters are the result of weakened infrastructure, the lack of power sharing agreements between states, reliance on coal to the exclusion of alternatives power options i.e. water and nuclear, as well as an underdeveloped crisis-management system. This crisis is an unfortunate road bump for a nation according to a Morgan Stanley report, is poised to accelerate its growth rate to 9-9.5% over 2013-15.

This growth is being driven by a sterling demographic dividend, continuing structural reform and globalization, but power shortages, dilapidated roads, and an antiquated train network has weighed heavily on the country's efforts to industrialize. Despite Morgan Stanley’s optimistic forecast, India like many other nations are grappling with the deleterious impact of the global economic slowdown.

On Tuesday, the central bank cut its economic growth outlook for the fiscal year that ends in March 2013 to 6.5 percent, from the 7.3 percent assumption made by economists earlier this year.

Unfortunately, in the wake of this crisis, the government’s previous decision to scale back on a strategic initiative to invest $1 trillion into infrastructure over the next five years seems ill-timed. As with most emerging nations, rolling blackouts are commonplace and many businesses and affluent home owners have backup generators. However, generators have a finite capacity that far exceeds the demands placed upon them by the health and humans services and transportation sector among others.

In various news reports, Indians have expressed embarrassment of their government’s failure to anticipate and rectify the systemic weaknesses in the power grid system before this catastrophic failure. They have every right to expect more from the government since most of the electricity distribution and transmission is produced and managed by the states. Less than a quarter of power generated in India is provided by private companies headquartered in Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated his vow to fast-track stalled power and infrastructure projects, while India’s federal power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde blamed the blackout on certain states that supposedly had overdrawn  power beyond their quotas. Indians seem to have little faith in either official who seem more concerned with their political careers than serving the people.

Today, Singh announced that Shinde is being promoted to the critical position of home ministry which many view as overt favoritism since he  has performed so poorly in his current position. For his part, Singh's prior commitment to revive India's flagging economy through investment in various sectors which would ostensibly create more jobs has failed to materialize and thus earned him criticism for dragging his feet.

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