NEW DELHI, August 3, 2012 — It was not a great start of the week for Delhites last week. Starting my day as usual by rushing to catch the next train at the subway station near my place. Reaching the station, it was unusually crowded with people competing for each inch of space to get into the next train, which arrived only after a wait of more than an hour.
On Monday of last week, the trains, which usually operate at a frequency of 4 to 5 minutes and ferry about a million commuters daily, had come to a standstill.
India experienced its worst power failure in decades, leaving almost 620 million people powerless across 20 states. First, the northern grid collapsed, followed by the eastern grid and then as if in competition, the northeastern grid fell. Usually it is natural calamities that cause such massive failures i nmy country, however this failure was largely the result of poor long-term planning and lack of grid discipline across states.
According to R.N. Naya, chairman of the state-run Power Grid Corporation, “Officials in northeastern India said that the power grid in that region has collapsed, the third one to fail in a massive, cascading blackout. The failures across the three power grids Tuesday afternoon left more than half the country without electricity. Even before we could figure out the reason for yesterday’s failure, we had more grid failures today.“
As the popular saying goes in India, when there is a power blackout in your house you don’t first call the electricity board to fix it, you check to see if your neighbor is in the dark too, so you’re not the only one doomed.
So it was not too long before the city discovered that Delhi was not the only one suffering in sweltering heat and humidity; its neighbors in the north and east shared the same fate. While Delhi is no stranger to frequent power and water shortages, this one was unique in the sense that it was overwhelming and brought into its folds everything that needs to be switched on!
With thousands of commuters stranded at the railway stations, no streetlights, massive traffic jams, and serpentine queues of cars on roads, hospitals had to rely on diesel run generators for emergency operations.
Two hundred miners were trapped in three deep coal shafts in the state of West Bengal when their electric elevators stopped working. Niladri Roy, an official at Eastern Coalfields Limited, told the reporters that workers at the mines, one of which is 3,000 feet deep, were not in danger and were being taken out.
The urban population took to social networking sites with tweets and humor to express their frustration and angst on feeling so powerless.
Some in the blogosphere even floated conspiracy theories behind the blackout, such as the theory that it was meant to divert attention from the ongoing anti-corruption campaign and prevent media coverage of the protests.
Sports fans were furious to have missed their Olympic broadcast, where India’s ace shooter Gagan Narang won the country its first bronze in the Games.
Besides the chaos caused by the blackout, it caused a severe dent in the country’s already suffering image as an investment destination. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) told Business Standard, “Losses to business have been in thousands of crores of rupees, which pales into insignificance compared to the difficulty that the people of the country have had to face,”
The government has set up a committee to investigate the reasons behind the massive failure. However, as experts and energy analysts have been pointing out, India needs urgently to reform its power sector to prevent any such massive failures in future. The state needs to invest more in generation, transmission and distribution of power, curtail power theft (30 to 40 percent of power is not paid for) and revisit subsidies.
Roughly 70 percent of India’s electricity comes from coal and there is heavy dependence on diesel run generators in cities and rural areas alike to counter the effects of power shortages, which are not unusual, especially in areas with decrepit infrastructure.
Nuclear energy, which is often touted by the government as an important source of power for the future, has not really taken off. It contributes less than 3 percent of the country’s total energy generation. The government’s plan to build India’s largest Nuclear power plant, a U.S. $9.3 billion project, is mired in controversies and has become a target for protests since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.
The need of the hour is to channel investments into alternative sources of energy; if we fail to do so, we ignore our poverty of power at our own peril!
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