Chaos hits millions in India's power struggle

The collapse of the northern electricity grid yesterday affected more than 300 million people – and highlighted the country's creaking infrastructure
  • @AndrewBuncombe

Millions of people across the north of India were without electricity yesterday when the largest blackout for a decade triggered chaos and misery and highlighted the country's creaking infrastructure.

Up to 300 million people across eight states were affected after the nation's northern power grid crashed at about 2.30am, apparently unable to cope with demand. Ten hours later, about 60 per cent of supply had been restored and more was steadily returning last night.

The precise cause of the collapse was not immediately clear and a government-appointed panel was set up to investigate. Some reports claimed there was a problem near the city of Agra that had somehow triggered a collapse across the grid.

The precise cause of the collapse may not be known, but the impact was all too clear. Airports and hospitals struggled to get by with back-up generators, about 300 inter-city trains were cancelled or delayed and the Delhi metro, which carries about two million passengers a day, saw its services severely disrupted.

For people left struggling without fans, refrigerators or air-conditioning in temperatures around 35C and with humidity of almost 90 per cent, it was an unpleasant situation. But for recent rain in Delhi, the temperature would have been much higher in the capital.

"Today it was horrendous," said Komal Kumar, a shop keeper from south Delhi. "The metro was not working, the trains were not working, the signals were not working and there were traffic jams at every junction. It was just a chaotic situation because there were not enough traffic police."

Bhupender Giri, an electrician and handy-man from Sangam Vihar, one of the so-called unauthorised neighbourhoods that spring up without planning permission around Delhi, said the power cut meant he had been unable to pump water to his house.

"I am not happy. There were no lights, no water," said Mr Giri, who said he would not know if power had been restored to his district until he returned home later yesterday.

The minister for power, Sushilkumar Shinde, told reporters the blackout had been triggered by a problem near Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and that power would be restored within hours. He gave no further details, but said repairs were being carried out more quickly than when the US suffered a similar blackout four years ago.

In Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, officials blamed other states which had been over-drawing from the national grid. They said the situation had been worsened by a weak monsoon that reduced hydroelectric generation and kept temperatures higher, increasing demand.

While it was the first time since 2001 that the entire northern grid had collapsed – an incident that at the time cost the country an estimated £70m in lost production – the crisis underscored the challenges created by India's inadequate infrastructure.

During peak hours, India has an electricity deficit of about 12 per cent. While the authorities have tried to increase capacity, demand has been rising recently by 8 per cent annually as the growing middle-class buys more air-conditioners.

The authorities are also trying to develop solar and nuclear power. While nuclear accounts for only about 3 per cent of the total, officials want to raise this to 25 per cent by 2050 and reduce the country's reliance on oil and coal.

In some states as much as half of generated electricity is lost, much of it stolen by individuals who illegally hook up to electricity lines. Industry officials complain that inadequate power supply is holding back the country's economic development.

The government's top economic planning adviser, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, told Reuters the blackout may have been caused by a combination of coal shortages and other problems on the grid. "I've no doubt that this is the area that we need to show improved performance in," he said.

Yesterday's incident also provided a graphic reminder to India's city dwellers of the routine hardships confronted every day by a huge fraction of the population. The most recent census suggested that more than a third of all Indian homes did not consume enough electricity to light a single bulb.