Huge blackout fuels doubts about India’s economic ambitions

Asked to rate his performance as India’s power minister, Sushilkumar Shinde responded emphatically Wednesday. “Excellent,” he declared with a confident smile and a wave of his hand.

Power was restored across India on Wednesday after the worst blackout in global history, but responsibility for the crisis remained elusive. As the lights came back on, one thing was as clear as day: the government was not prepared to take the blame.

“We are very proud,” said Veerappa Moily, who replaced Shinde in the Power Ministry after a cabinet reshuffle. “We have an excellent system. Maybe there were certain localized features.”

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s blackout, the second in two days, some commentators saw a possible silver lining. Perhaps, they said, this was exactly the crisis India needed to force its politicians to make some tough decisions and fix the inefficient and overburdened power sector.

So far, though, the signs are not encouraging. Instead of vows to improve the system, India’s politicians lined up Wednesday to shift the blame. And the man in overall charge, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, stayed out of the spotlight, failing to issue even a single word of reassurance to his nation.

Instead, he took the remarkable step of promoting Shinde, announcing in the midst of the blackout that the 71-year-old would take on the coveted and challenging job of home minister.

The government acknowledged it was clueless as to the exact causes of Tuesday’s blackout, which affected more than 600 million people. Shinde’s last act before leaving office was to set up a committee of inquiry.

But officials blamed a similar blackout Monday on individual states drawing too much power from an already overburdened grid, in open defiance of the law.

The effect of that first grid failure could have explained Tuesday’s larger problems, said Ram Naik, managing director of Power Grid Corp. of India — a theory that international experts found plausible.

“There is always the potential for the system to become unstable when you are doing a reactivation,” said David Hilt, a member of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers and vice president of transmission at Quanta Technology in Raleigh, N.C. “It’s a delicate balance as you try to put the system back together.”

Meanwhile, India’s state governments blamed one another, or previous administrations, for the mess.

The northern state of Punjab released data showing that other states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, had been bigger offenders. Meanwhile, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, blamed his predecessor for not setting up enough power plants.

“What the previous government did in this sector is a big question,” Yadav said. “Until production is not increased, this problem can’t be solved.”

But experts said Yadav had compounded the problem by pushing the state power utility to provide 24-hour power to four districts politically important to his relatives or close allies.

“This led other local politicians to start putting enormous pressure on the power corporation to supply more electricity in their areas as well,” said Shailendra Dubey, secretary general of the All India Power Engineers Federation.

“The power corporation had no choice but to overdraw from the grid to satisfy these elected politicians. They could not say no to their political bosses. If you drive in a rash way every single day, then you are bound to have an accident one day.”

But the fundamental cause, experts said, was the central government’s failure to enforce any discipline in its management of the power grid, to enforce existing rules or to punish states that cheat.

“How they reacted to this crisis shows the lack of leadership in this government,” said Suresh Prabhu, a former power minister from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “This is the central problem in the power sector. There is a lack of political will to deal with the issues at the root of all this crisis.”

That is a reflection, analysts said, of how weak India’s central, coalition government has become under Singh’s eight-year stewardship and how dependent for its survival it has become on support from powerful state chief ministers.

“An utter lack of grid discipline” and “a sheer lack of effective regulation” set the scene for the power crisis, the Economic Times said. “But mostly, the grid failure underscores the fact that politically powerful states can overdraw power from the grid with impunity.”

In India’s states, electricity is heavily subsidized, and distribution companies are mired in debt. Generation capacity has risen significantly in the past few years as private producers have set up power stations, but distribution companies are often too indebted to pay.

To make matters worse, up to 40 percent of the power generated is stolen or leaks away from poorly insulated lines, because of decades of underinvestment in the grid.

India’s newspaper editors did not hesitate to give their verdict Wednesday, judging that a lack of effective leadership had cost their country dearly.

“Powerless and clueless,” the Hindustan Times said in a banner headline.

“Superpower India, RIP,” the Economic Times said.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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