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Asia

Experts discuss the reasons behind India's blackout

The extent of India's recent blackout – which left 600 million people without electricity for two days - was huge. Twenty states were affected. The unprecedented glitch came at a high price for the country's image.

Speculation over the causes of India's worst power outage ever abounds in the country's media. On Monday, July 30 and Tuesday, July 31, 20 of 28 states were without power. The Economic Times titled a story referring to the event "Super power India, rest in peace." The influential Times of India criticized Indian authorities and the country's leadership, referring to them as "powerless and clueless."

Bad for India's image

Economist Praveen Jha of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University estimates that after bringing life to a near stand-still, the power outages cost around 75 million euros. Hundreds of trains stood motionless on the tracks for hours, airports experienced great delays, and broken traffic lights caused kilometers of traffic in Indian metropolises. In order to keep emergency rooms open, hospitals had to fall back on generators.

A passenger looks through the window of a train as he waits for electricity to be restored at a railway station in New Delhi

The country's public transportation system was out of order for hours

But what was worse, was that the country's worst power outage has deeply damaged the image of the rising superpower, said Jha.

"It can be overlooked if the power goes out once. But when it happens two days in a row then it becomes clear that it is due to shoddy routine checks of the power grid and also that there is a lack of quality regulation."

He said it was no wonder that the whole world was making fun of India - a country that takes pride in presenting itself as the world's largest democracy and a rising superpower.

"India wants to be a member of the club of highly developed nations. But it can't even manage to fulfil the basic needs of its people - that is a pathetic picture."

Causes?

There is much speculation about the actual cause of the gigantic technical mishap. The Indian government has set up an investigation committee. Energy expert Arup Ghosh of one of New Delhi's leading electricity suppliers pointed out that power outages happened in other countries, as well, for instance, in the US.

"The main reason for power outages like these is that the grid is instable. And that happens when the grid is overloaded."

He said it was also a possibility that there were problems with the voltage - it could have been too high or too low, causing hiccups in the distribution. But why the routine inspections weren't able to catch anything abnormal - no one has been able to answer that.

Dependence on coal

The growing population - which counts 1.2 billion people - and the country's rapidly growing economy - with an average growth of eight percent in the past few years has created an insatiable hunger for energy.

"It is difficult to fulfil the country's energy demands," said Ghosh. "If you look at the statistics, it is clear that we currently produce around 15 percent less energy than we need. And demand continues to grow."

India's President elect Pranab Mukherjee, right, and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

The mishap was a large blow to Manmohan Singh's government

India covers over half of its energy needs with coal. In order to tackle the country's energy problems, experts have long been demanding that India move away from coal and use renewable and ecologically friendly sources like sun and wind energy. A number of new nuclear power plants are currently under construction. But since the nuclear disaster in Japan's Fukushima prefecture, opposition to nuclear energy has grown considerably.

"We won't be able to get away from coal as our main source of energy within the next decade. But we will surely be able to increase the amount of renewable sources we use," said Ghosh.

According to him, the main problem is that switching over from coal will be a costly endeavour -has been hesitant with reforms.

Government under pressure

Jha fears the gap between the government and the Indian population will grow regarding energy policies. "The dominant opinion is that this government is not capable of managing crises. At the same time, it is trying to whitewash the disaster and is busy defending itself instead of taking responsibility for the incident."

Before the blackout, pressure had already been growing on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress Party over a number of corruption scandals. The government must get its act together if it expects to win any seats in the country's next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2014.

Author: Priya Esselborn / sb
Editor: Shamil Shams

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