Blackouts are an inevitable part of daily life in India.
Over five weeks living in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, I heard the ‘zoooomph’ that precedes the quiet of a power cut almost every day at 9pm. The rooms went dark and we would all gather under the one ceiling fan connected to the backup diesel-fuelled generator. By 9.30pm, the hum of electricity would kick back in.
This can also happen in south Mumbai, India’s financial hub, which was hit with a two-day outage in October 2011 that forced businesspeople to seek electricity in five-star hotels and restaurants.
But the blackout that swept through northern India between 30 and 31 July was exceptional. For the first time in India, three power grids collapsed simultaneously, leaving 620 million people in eight states and New Delhi in the dark for more than 24 hours.
It was a call to arms for Indian energy officials, shedding light on fundamental problems with India’s energy system.
New power plants in India are running at 50-60% of their capacity, while the electricity shortfall hovers at 8-11%. Meanwhile, state-owned distribution companies (‘discoms’) frequently overdraw on their electricity supply contracts. There is a lack of “grid discipline”, Power Minister Veerappa Moily said shortly after stepping into his post on 31 July.
Pre-blackout, New Delhi’s energy measures focused on keeping the problems from worsening, rather than fixing the underlying failures. In an acknowledgement of lacking supplies, for instance, the Ministry of Power last year reduced its target for adding new gas-fired generation in 2012-2017 to 75 gigawatts from 100 GW.
Post-blackout, however, the talk has shifted to penalising states for power theft and reviving cash-strapped discoms, which are dealing with losses of over INR 1 trillion ($18.05 billion) and debts of more than INR 2 trillion.
“This cannot be sustained,” Moily told Interfax. “We have reached a situation where power is available, but the discoms are unable to buy electricity. There is an urgent need to make the discoms viable.”
Penalties for overdrawing electricity may include prison time for chief state officials, Moily, also a former law minister, later told CNN-IBN.
Whether or not the government follows through with the talk remains to be seen, however. Resuscitating discoms could be difficult in a country struggling to even secure enough fuel for its economic boom, and where government-capped oil and gas prices do little to encourage exploration.
Ultimately, keeping the power running downstream may first require a jolt to the upstream system.