Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Great Indian Blackout of 2012

The unprecedented breakdown in the Northern Grid between 30 and 31 July resulted in 600 million people across the north and east of India losing their electricity supply.

No lights, no fans, no air conditioning. Hospitals, trains, businesses, and schools shut down. Life as many knew it was dislocated.
Those who had them used diesel-powered generator sets. Most people simply sat it out; after all power cuts happen every day in most cities; we had regular load-shedding as far back as the mid 70’s; in any case vast numbers of poor people in thousands of villages are not connected to the grid anyway. That this particular power outage affected half the country’s population at the same time was merely a matter of detail. 

Or was it?

India’s image was tarnished worldwide. One of the BRIC economies, a nuclear power, a space exploring and satellite launching nation, India aspired to a seat on the Security Council and Great Power status. And we still can’t meet basic needs for electrical energy; forget about the level of per capita energy consumption of China, never mind Europe or America; a third of the population don’t have access to electricity even for a  light bulb or a socket to charge your mobile phone reliably.

The blackout itself was not the real surprise. What I found astonishing and disquieting was the response of Mr Shinde, the Union Minister for Power. On NDTV his replies to fair and balanced questioning by Barkha Dutt was breathtaking for its arrogance and disturbing for anyone hoping that this would be the beginning of the end of India’s power woes.

No, he did not see anything odd or surprising in his elevation to the Home Ministry. It was all planned weeks ago as part of a cabinet reshuffle because of Mr Pranab Mukherjee‘s election as President of India.

No, he said, it was not the fault of the Government. It was because all these states, you see, they were drawing more energy than their allocated quota. Why? Because, stupid, of the drought and the summer heat. That’s what caused the the grid to collapse, and then the blackout. Simple, don’t you see?,  it’s all the fault of the weather.

And by the way these things happen in America too, he continued. Remember the New York blackout? It took them 2 days to get power back on; we did it in under 6 hours! So there, we can do power supply better than the Americans, no need to beat ourselves up over a minor inconvenience of a few hours of loss of supply.

There wasn’t one word of acknowledgement that the Government was accountable for its part in the complex mix of underlying factors that are responsible for India’s chronic under-investment in power generation and poor management of distribution.  There wasn’t a whiff of an apology for the mess that is energy policy over which his Government had presided for the last so many years. There was not the least semblance of understanding of the changes that needed to be made if things are to get better.  Changes that would involve tough policy choices: from higher prices for those who can afford to pay to greater incentives for new producers to make the long term investments in power generation.

The Grid can be patched up and we can all limp along with a few more hours of load-shedding. But if India is to catch up with the rest of the world it needs to think seriously about fundamental changes to how we approach the most important parts of our infrastructure.  Keeping the lights on has to be a national priority.

And yet this may be the cataclysmic event we needed to shake things up. Things usually have to get pretty bad before everyone agrees that something dramatic has to be done to make things better.

Take for example, the experience of London. Today it is glittering in the glow of a successful Olympic games But in the summer of 1858 a great stink arose from the River in London – a stench so strong that London came to a standstill, Parliament shut down, and the Courts planned to move out of the City.

London, famed as the centre of global commerce, came to be seen as the world’s most filthy city.

But The Great Stench also led to reform. It provided the impetus to spend 10% of the country’s then GDP to build a massive modern underground sewerage system that started the great Victorian Sanitary revolution.

The question for India now is this: Will the Great Power Outage of July 2012 be the impetus for a national energy plan that ensures a secure energy supply for every Indian?