India's Dark Night

The Politics Behind the Power Failure

Indian children study by kerosene lamp. (Rupak De Chowdhuri / Courtesy Reuters)

India can boast of the world's biggest democracy and its oldest culture. And now it has added another superlative: site of history's largest power failure. The country's electricity grid faltered on July 30, 2012 and then again the following day. An area that is home to more than half of the country's population -- between 600 million and 700 million people -- went dark.

Most of those living in that area, however, did not feel the loss. A sizeable portion own backup power sources, either diesel-powered generators or inverters, which work like giant batteries. They charge up when electricity is available; when it isn't, they can be used to power whole households. Those who owned generators and inverters turned them on as soon as the grid failed, and their lives went on as normal.

Another part of the population -- millions of people -- didn't feel the outage because they were never connected to the grid to begin with. The states in northern and eastern India, which bore the brunt of the blackout, have among India's lowest rates of electrification. According to the 2011 census, in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in India and one of those that lost power, only 24 percent of the state's 25 million rural households are electrified. For comparison, China's household electrification rate had already exceeded 98 percent by 2003.

Millions likely did lose power, though, and transportation ground to a halt, stranding rail passengers and choking already dense streets and highways. In addition, the blackout renewed global doubts about India's ability to sustain high growth.

Immediately following the first outage, India's Ministry of Power formed an investigatory commission and put A. S. Bakshi, the chairman of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission, in charge of it. The body will likely point to a host of factors that led to the outage, including inadequate power and extraordinary circumstances. Many have already speculated that this year's monsoon, which came later than usual, exacerbated problems in a

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