In a tragic crescendo of calamity, two consecutive blackouts in two days brought India to its knees at the end of last month. After the first interruptions in power delivery at the beginning of the week, a wider blackout rocked India the next day. More than 600 million people, more than half of India’s population, were without power for days, with the lights coming back on momentarily only to go back out again minutes later. From Delhi to Calcutta, the entire northern part of the country was affected. Houses became unbearably hot in the sweltering heat. Hospitals remained operational via generators, but the traffic outside, both on road and rails, came to a standstill. Factories ran in spurts, competing for what little electricity there remained available.
The current situation is a far cry from the role to which India aspires. Years of economic development have not improved the electricity grid, or the overall infrastructure in general. Even more inexplicable is contradiction between the quality and quantity of Indian engineers and these frequent failures. How can a nation at the forefront of high-tech research and development fall victim to problems that other developing countries resolved decades ago?
The Shining India – a term coined to exemplify India’s other resounding successes – too often finds itself a prisoner of its archaic past, an inefficient bureaucracy, and a widespread lack of interest for the common good. The Indian government has instituted a commission of experts to determine the cause of the disaster. Initial reports have placed the blame on high temperatures, overloading of the network, the late arrival of monsoon rains, and the arid earth in the agricultural regions like the Punjab. All fingers seem to point towards an exceptional phenomenon justifying an otherwise avoidable disaster. The Ministry of Energy has been made responsible for the department of the interior. The move was planned as part of a scheduled reshuffling of responsibilities, but the timing is ironic.
Over the same period, Pakistan has been contending with the same shortcomings in electric energy supply. Repeated blackouts have hit houses, cities, and factories, touching off protests across the country, but Delhi should not take comfort because it would do nothing to resolve its own urgent issues. What would help would be to recognize that the grip of underdevelopment does not respect borders in the subcontinent.