As power is restored in India, the 'Blame Game' over blackouts heats up


New Delhi: As electric power was restored across northern India on Wednesday, political jockeying over who was to blame for the widespread blackouts intensified.

The nation's new power minister distanced himself from assertions by his predecessor that state officials were responsible for Monday and Tuesday's blackouts by drawing more power for their regions than they were allotted. But the former power minister, who was promoted in a cabinet reshuffle, kept right on making those claims.

"I don't think one can have a blame game between the state and the center," said the new minister, Veerappa Moily.

Hours later, Mr. Moily's predecessor, Sushil Kumar Shinde, again blasted the state governments. "The grid failed because of the overloading of the power," he said, contending that "many states" try to take more power than scheduled.

Mr. Shinde was promoted to home minister on Tuesday. Despite presiding over two of the biggest blackouts in human history, Mr. Shinde declared himself to have been an "excellent" power minister.

Rather than focus on the loss of power, people should appreciate that power was restored across India within a matter of hours, Mr. Shinde said.

His statements were mocked by a number of political observers and became grist for severe criticism from opposition lawmakers. Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, said that the government was merely trying to divert attention from its own incompetence.

"The unprecedented grid failure is a result of negligence, incompetence and complete abdication of duty on the part of the central government," Mr. Javadekar said.

Roughly half of India's population lost electricity on Tuesday after a cascading series of problems in three of the nation's interrelated power grids shut down power in an area stretching 2,000 miles, from Imphal in the east to Jaisalmer in the west, and from Leh in the north to Bhubaneswar in the middle of the country.

The blackout affected an area encompassing about 670 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the world's population, though tens of millions of those people were already living without access to a regular supply of electricity. It temporarily trapped coal miners, stranded train passengers and caused huge traffic jams in the nation's capital. There were no reports of deaths directly linked to the blackout.

Mr. Moily said Wednesday at a news conference that the power supply was restored by 3 p.m. on Tuesday for emergency services like railways and airports, and that by the evening the power situation was "normal."

"I can reassure the entire nation," Mr. Moily said. "That kind of situation will never repeat in the national scene."

India's basic power problem is that the country's rapid development has led demand to far outstrip supply. That means power officials must manage the grid by shutting down power to small sections of the country on a rotating basis. But doing so requires quick action from government officials who are often loath to shut off power to important constituencies.

India's problem generating enough power has been one of the biggest handicaps to its prospects for sustaining rapid economic growth, analysts say. The shortage of electricity is a major reason the country has not been able to establish the kind of manufacturing base it needs to pull hundreds of millions out of subsistence farming, as its neighbor China has done.

"The Indian power sector needs major reform," said Rajendra K. Pachauri, the director general of the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi.

Part of the reason that India's electrical grid is under particular stress at the moment may be that low rainfall has restricted the amount of power delivered by hydroelectric dams, which India relies on for a significant share of its power needs. A related cause may be that farmers are using more power than expected to run water pumps to irrigate their crops.

But Ajit Sharan, the power secretary for Haryana, said that the central government was supposed to warn states if they were drawing excessive power from the system, but that no warnings were issued on Tuesday or Monday.

Whatever the ultimate cause turns out to be, the scale of the blackout caused India acute embarrassment on the international stage. Indians track world opinion closely, not only for reasons of national pride but because foreign investments and remittances are crucial parts of the economy.

"The image of it looks very bad," said Naresh Chandra, a former ambassador to the United States and former electricity regulator in New Delhi. But Mr. Chandra said that the problems were fixable and that international investors should not lose heart. "India is on a learning curve and hasn't managed its technology as it should. But it will."

Some experts are more hopeful than in the past because a number of Indian officials have made politically difficult decisions in recent months to raise electricity prices. State governments in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Punjab have moved to stem losses at public utilities that had been selling power for far less than it costs them to buy it. Besides providing more money to invest in additional supply, the higher prices for consumers and businesses should also help lower demand for power.

"I think everybody has realized that there are no free lunches," said Chandan Roy, a former director at India's largest state-owned power producer, the National Thermal Power Corporation.

Frequent blackouts have forced many businesses, including India's vaunted software industry, to rely extensively on diesel generators, which typically cost two to three times as much to produce power as does electricity from the grid. Comparisons are difficult, though, since the government partly subsidizes both methods of generating electricity.

What is more, about 300 million people in India have no access to power at all, and 300 million more have only sporadic access. Another of the nation's basic problems is that supplies of coal, largely controlled by the government, have not been enough to meet demand even among power plants that have the capacity to generate more electricity.

Shailendra Tshwant, an environmental activist and energy consultant, said that relying on more coal and further centralizing the nation's energy infrastructure would be a mistake.

"Decentralized renewable energy sources like wind, solar and microhydropower plants are the answers here," Mr. Tshwant said.

If India's power grid becomes ever more unreliable, experts said, private power alternatives will further proliferate, despite their relative inefficiency.

And while the breakdowns may have been caused by a technical fault, it is clear that they reflect India's larger problems with its power supply. "Though it looks like an accident," said Suresh Prabhu, who ran India's power ministry in the early 2000s, "it was an accident that was waiting to happen."

© 2012, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: August 02, 2012 10:57 IST

Share this story on

ALSO READDaddy's Little Girl Interrupts Military Ceremony to Welcome Him Home

................................ Advertisement ................................

................................ Advertisement ................................