Grid collapse in India leaves over 650 million without electricity

Much of India’s electricity transmission grid collapsed Tuesday, depriving almost 700 million people—well over half of India’s population—of power, and in many cases water, for hours.

The blackout is far and away the greatest in world history, with power cut off from approximately 10 percent of the world’s population, more than double the total population of the United States. Twenty-one northern and north-eastern Indian states and Union territories were affected, including Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, and Delhi, seat of the national capital.

With transport paralyzed and hospitals forced to rely on often antiquated back-up generators, it seems inevitable that the failure of much of India’s electricity network will ultimately cause fatalities.

Tuesday’s power outage—which involved the collapse of three inter-state electricity grids—came less than 24 hours after the Northern Grid suffered a systemic failure, depriving 350 million people of electricity. Monday’s outage, which in some areas lasted 15 hours, affected the entire Northern Grid, which serves much of India’s most densely populated areas including Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

The areas in black—21 states and Union territories—were all affected by Tuesday's mega-blackout.

Tuesday’s power failure interrupted some three hundred trains, leaving passengers stranded often in the middle of nowhere in sweltering summer heat. The subway system in Delhi was also paralyzed for hours. With traffic lights off-line, cities across northern India suffered hours of traffic chaos.

Hundreds of coal miners working for the Eastern Coalfields Ltd. in the state of West Bengal were stranded underground. A further 65 coal miners in the neighboring state of Jharkhand have yet to be rescued.

India’s power generation capacity and its power grid have been exposed as woefully inadequate for a country of 1.1 billion people. Officials claim that total generation capacity from all fuel sources is around 200,000 Megawatts (MW). However, much of this capacity is unavailable at any time due to maintenance, the inadequacy of the power grid to carry the electricity, or forced (random) outages.

Even today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, at least 300 million people in India do not have access to electricity. Hundreds of millions more have only intermittent supply.

With a generation capacity of 1,119,673 MW as of 2009, the US has six times more electrical generating capacity than India, although its population is about a fourth the size.

According to the World Bank, the annual per capita consumption of electricity in India in 2009 was just 571 Kwh, compared to 15,471 Kwh in Canada and 12,914 Kwh in the US. In China per capita consumption was 2,631 Kwh, over four times that of India.

Whatever events triggered this week’s blackouts, they reflect the chronic gap between India’s electricity demand and supply. According to one estimate, in March demand outpaced supply by a massive 10.2 percent.

This problem is “managed” through frequent power cuts and even blackouts, which businesses and the well-to-do try to cope with by installing backup generators.

Further compounding the crisis is the patchwork character of India’s electricity grid. It has not been designed as an integrated network, but is quilted together by tying state grids into a central transmission network. With many of the grids under the authority of state electricity boards, comprehensive coordinated control is impossible.

The authorities have provided no explanation for Monday’s and Tuesday’s blackouts, apart from accusing some states—in particularly Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana—of drawing more energy than their share from the energy grid.

Such explanations reveal above all the helplessness of the officials. Even were it true that some state boards were drawing excess power, that by itself should not have caused a cascading failure, in which three regional grids were weakened to the point of collapse.

Normally every part of the power grid should be protected by a comprehensively designed system of relays and circuit breakers that are programmed to trip and minimize the scope of a power outage when transmission lines and transformers overload or the system frequency drops.

According to a report in the Hindu, the protection system may have been inadequate, because many states have failed to install under-frequency relays that could have isolated the power outage.

This could partly explain why the protection mechanism failed to isolate the overloaded portions of the grid, allowing it to cascade across such a vast area. It is also likely, given the general state of Indian infrastructure, that whatever protections existed these were inadequately maintained, due to lack of funding.

Monday’s and Tuesday’s blackouts are emblematic of the anarchic and parasitical character of Indian capitalism. Sixty-five years after India secured “independence” from Britain, much of the population lives in hunger and squalor. Basic infrastructure—whether for the provision of health care, education, water or electricity—is woefully inadequate.

Even in the capital New Delhi, middle-class neighborhoods must secure private water supplies and routinely contend with power outages.

Despite the bombastic claims about India’s “arrival” as a world power advanced by the Indian elite and their boosters in the West—who are celebrating its emergence as a lucrative source of profits for global finance—by any measure India remains a desperately poor country.

The outages constitute a serious blow to the Indian bourgeoisie, especially given the economic crisis that is enveloping the country. They will only add to foreign investors’ complaints about India’s woeful infrastructure, even as the Indian bourgeoisie desperately seeks to attract foreign capital to avert economic collapse.

India is reeling from the impact of the global capitalist crisis, with exports declining, retail inflation in double digits, and the rupee falling to an all-time-low. Recently the head of India’s central bank discussed the possibility that India could face a 1991-style current account deficit crisis.

Undoubtedly, Indian and international big business will try to use this week’s blackouts to intensify demands for pro-market reforms, including privatizing power generation and transmission. Already Monday evening, the Wall Street Journal criticized the failure of India’s power companies to charge farmers and others the “market price” for electricity and cited India’s environmental regulations as an impediment to expanding coal production.

Far from solving India’s energy crisis, such private, for profit solutions will result in massive price gouging and further blackouts.