Massive blackout in India leaves 600 million in the dark

India suffered its second huge, crippling power failure in two days Tuesday, depriving as much as half of the vast and populous country, or up to 600 million people, of electricity and disrupting transport networks.

CNN Wire

11:42 AM CDT, July 31, 2012


India suffered its second huge, crippling power failure in two days Tuesday, depriving as much as half of the vast and populous country, or up to 600 million people, of electricity and disrupting transport networks.

The first power grid collapse, on Monday, was the country's worst blackout in a decade. It affected seven states in northern India that are home to more than 350 million people.

But Tuesday's failure was even larger, hitting eastern and northeastern areas as well.

Both blackouts cut power in the Indian capital, New Delhi.

The power companies that operate the affected electricity grids reported Tuesday's collapse on their websites.

With about 1.2 billion people, India has the second-highest population of any country, behind China.

At least 300 trains were held up in the affected regions, said Anil Kumar Saxena, a spokesman for Indian Railways. Delhi's metro system, seen as a lifeline for commuters, also suffered delays.

Miners in the Burdwan District of West Bengal state have been hit by the blackout too.

The district's top administrator, O.S. Meena, told CNN that 150 coal miners were working underground when the outage happened, stopping lifts.

Authorities switched to emergency supplies to run elevators to bring the miners up, and more than 60% have been brought above ground, he said.

"The others will be brought up very soon. All are safe," Meena said.

Authorities have urged people not to panic about the safety of the miners.

The two consecutive days of disruption are embarrassing for India, a nation growing in international stature and the third-largest Asian economy, and have raised questions about its investment in infrastructure.

The power companies said they were working to restore service. It was not immediately clear whether the blackouts were partial or total in the different regions.

India has an annual power shortfall of 8%.

Monday's grid failure struck in the early morning. Residents spent the rest of the night drenched in sweat amid humid weather, and many backup power systems had run out by daybreak. Power was partially restored after about six hours, authorities said.

That blackout left passengers stranded at train stations, and signal failures caused traffic snarls that choked the Indian capital's already congested roads during office hours.

Airports and hospitals have been running on backup power, so have remained operational, but many businesses say they have lost out because the blackouts have cut productivity, said Jyoti Kamal, senior editor for CNN-IBN.

The blame game between political parties has already begun, Kamal said, but the root cause of the problem is that demand is surging but power generation is just not keeping pace.

Many people, especially in northern India, are hugely frustrated by the problem, he said.

Indians have not been strangers to power cuts, which become more common during the summer when demand shoots up.

Some of the increased demand this summer has been caused by farmers using more energy for irrigation and other tasks, in part because monsoon rains have been delayed. People are also using air conditioning units more.

The Indian power minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, has ordered an investigation into Monday's outage. He said the last time that an entire grid failed in north India was 10 years ago.

He said that the reason for the latest blackouts is not yet known but that some states, particularly those with a lot of agricultural activity, may have been using more than their share of energy.

India relies on coal for much of its energy needs but also uses hydroelectric power, which has been affected by the delay in monsoon rains.

Observers say the crisis has exposed the need for India to update its infrastructure to meet the power needs of businesses and the country's growing population.

"Economic growth is constrained by inadequate infrastructure," among other factors, the U.S. State Department's country report on India says.

"Foreign investment is particularly sought after in power generation," it adds, as well as areas including telecommunications, roads and mining.

The United States is India's largest investment partner, the State Department report says, with U.S. direct investment in India estimated at more than $16 billion through 2008.