India experiences massive power outages

Indian porters push a parcels cart over railway tracks near a web of high voltage line feeders at a train station in New Delhi on July 31, 2012.

Jeff Horwich: Today blackouts in northern India spread to the eastern states, affecting half of the country's 1.2 billion people. Many office buildings are running on generators; More than a hundred trains were stranded in the summertime heat.

The BBC's Rahul Tandon is reporting for us from a train station in Kolkata.


Rahul Tandon: I'm at the Sealdah train station in Kolkata. This is one of the busiest stations in India. There is absolute chaos here; no trains have run for the last two and a half hours. I've just been walking on the platform -- there are hundreds if not thousands of passengers strande, waiting to find out what is going on. There is anger across India today.

Here's GK Sehgal. He's a management consultant in Delhi, and he's not happy.

GK Sehgal: My day began without water and then there were other problems. The whole system was at a standstill.

People are paying more for power here in India, but they say the service is getting worse and worse, and worse. It is sweltering across this country at the moment, and people are suffering.

Dr. Mitra Chenoy, is a professor of politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He sums up the feelings of many.

Mitra Chenoy: What they're really angry about is that just a couple of months ago the price of power was increased by 24 percent, so they're saying that they're paying much more for power and these outages are occurring and paralyzing the city; and making it difficult for us to go to work and for our children to go to school.

Back here at the station, people have no idea when the power is going to be restored. A senior politician has just said it could take 10 to 12 hours. And India's reputation as an emerging economic super power -- that is diminishing, minute by minute.

In Kolkata, I'm the BBC's Rahul Tandon, for Marketplace.

*****

Hobson: Well for some analysis, let's bring in Michael Kugelman. He follows Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.
Good morning.

Michael Kugelman: Good morning.

Hobson: Well so, there was one power outage yesterday that seemed like maybe it could be a bigger thing maybe it could be a fluke. But after you have two in two days it does seems like maybe there’s something larger going on here.

Kugelman: Yeah absolutely, you know I think the easy answer for what’s going on is it’s a supply and demand issue. I mean, you have a large numbers of people that need power, particularly during the summer months. And then you know, also there are other factors at play that intensify these supply and demand issues such as the fact that there have not been as much monsoons as there usually are in India.

It’s reduced the supply of water to power hydropower in India, which is a significant source of energy. But really I suspect, it really is a consequence of the aging infrastructure in India of its power systems. It’s just really in very bad shape. And you have to assume that at some point something like this would have happened.

Hobson: Well, how fast is the demand rising in a big emerging economy like India?

Kugelman: Well, I mean it’s rising quickly. I think we have to put things in perspective a bit here. It’s true the country has more than a billion people but you got 400 million people in the country that are not on the grid that use traditional energy sources: firewood. Sure, the demand is going to rise but not exponentially and we definitely shouldn’t be thinking of 1.2 billion people needing electricity.

Hobson: Well, what can these fast growing economies like India do to keep up with that kind of demand?

Kugelman: Well, honestly the best thing to do is really the least politically expedient and that’s really to manage demand a lot more. And that really involves simple things like trying to make repairs to aging facilities, it’s trying to cut down on theft. And the government has done some things along those lines. But when you have an emergency and you need more supply, more power right away that’s not exactly what’s going to be on people’s minds.   

Hobson: Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Center thanks so much.

Kugelman: Thank you.

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