Blackouts in India are a sign of political arrogance
Power was restored in India on Wednesday after an estimated 620-million people were left without electricity in the world's worst blackout of recent times. Twenty of India's 28 states were hit by the power cuts, along with the capital, New Delhi, when three of the country's five electricity grids failed at lunchtime.
To leave one in 20 of the world's people without electricity, that lifeblood of modern society, in the hairdryer heat of an Indian summer is unfortunate. To do it again to one in 12 of the world's population a day later is unpardonable carelessness.
Yet, while politicians argued in Delhi, across the cowbelt of northern India more than 600-million souls were left to perspire in underground trains, shopping malls, offices, restaurants and homes.
A few decades ago this was hardly news. Frequent blackouts meant the insides of fridges were invariably hotter than the air outside them. Even today half of rural India, where most of the country lives, is not connected to the electricity grid.
However, things have been changing – and that is part of the problem. Thanks to India's economy, which will expand by 6.5% this year, the country's middle-class homes are stocked with air conditioners, flat-screen televisions, microwaves and computers. There is just not enough electricity to run them all.
Despite ploughing $130-billion into the power industry in the past five years, India's infrastructure remains dilapidated or nonexistent. Getting the funds to invest is difficult when the poor often steal electricity and politicians dish out free power to wealthy farmers at election time.
Electricity companies are headed by bureaucrats and run like government departments. They show little accountability to consumers and a disturbing tolerance of bribes.
It is absurd, given the size and scale of the blackout, that the minister in charge is likely to be promoted in a forthcoming government reshuffle.
The situation serves as an unappealing backdrop to this week's misery, which was almost certainly sparked by the lax attitude of the government and officials of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
The newly elected administration appears not to have made any contingency plans in case its hydroelectric dams ran dry. After a poor monsoon season, this is exactly the predicament the state – along with other smaller northern regions – found themselves in. So Uttar Pradesh drew on the national grid to meet demand it could not fulfil. In doing so it overloaded first its own grid and then set off a cascade of system collapses across northern India.
Power, so vital for growth, is India's biggest bottleneck. It is a paradox that in China unelected leaders are careful to provide the masses with material benefits such as electricity, water and roads, because they legitimise dictatorship.
In India, democracy allows just the opposite: free elections excuse the political class from providing the basics of life to the masses who have elected them. – © Guardian News & Media 2012