India's Huge Blackout Leaves Millions Without Power

A massive power cut in India left more than 300 million people — about a quarter of the population — without electricity on Monday. The cause of the collapse of the northern Indian power grid is still being investigated, but resulted in blackouts across at least eight Indian states. With no lights or hot water at home, millions of Indians then had to face a long struggle to get to work because trains were stopped and roads were jammed by lack of power for stop lights.

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In India this morning, more than 350 million people woke up in the dark. More importantly, they woke up in the stifling heat, their fans and air conditioning cutoff by a massive power failure in the northern part of the country. Now, just to give you some scale, 350 million is more than the entire population of the United States. Officials there say they're still not sure what caused the power failure, the worst in a decade, but many Indians blame a lack of investment by their government.

Elliot Hannon has the story from New Delhi.

ELLIOT HANNON, BYLINE: When millions of people in Northern India woke up this morning, they were already aware that there was a power cut, but they wouldn't have know the extent of the problem because they couldn't watch their TVs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Darkness in eight states in India early this morning...

HANNON: The massive blackout that stretched on for hours caused chaos during the morning rush hour across the region. In New Delhi, the subway system, which carries two million passengers each day, was shut down for much of the morning commute. Stoplights were dark. Rail services were delayed for hours and the roads were jammed with commuters trying to make it to work.

Jimmy Wadhawan was one of those who decided he had to spend the night in his car to escape the heat and humidity.

JIMMY WADHAWAN: I mean, I tried to wriggle my way out of it for as long as possible. But at the end of it, I was in the car cuddled up with a blanket, you know, trying to get my two hours of sleep.

HANNON: But at the small grocery store he owns in New Delhi, he already had a backup plan. Like most shop owners in India, Wadhawan has invested heavily in back-up generators to save his stock from rotting. He says he's prepared for power failures, but wonders why he needs to be.

WADHAWAN: One of our biggest overheads is electricity bills. So if you're paying through your noses, you expect at least that supply chain to be maintained because that's something you don't have control on. So when the lights go off and considering we are considering ourselves to be on the verge of being a developed country, it actually makes you wonder, are we there?

HANNON: Despite today's massive failure, the power supply in India is actually better than it used to be. Even a decade ago, much of the country was used to hours of cuts, often every day. But as India has developed, more people have come on the grid. And as the economy continues to grow, more and more businesses are also in need of a constant power supply.

And while India doesn't have vast energy resources of its own, the real problem is mismanagement, says Navroz Dubash. He's an energy expert at the Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank in New Delhi.

NAVROZ DUBASH: The electric power sector in India is like a bucket with a great big hole in it. And so we actually have a problem where nobody knows exactly who is using how much power in India.

HANNON: Almost half of the electricity generated in the country is lost on its way to homes and businesses. Some of the losses are due to theft, but much of it is shoddy infrastructure. The big power cut has unleashed a wave of criticism of India's politicians for not investing in the electricity system. But, Dubash says, he's not optimistic that Indian leaders are willing to make the difficult decisions that would fix the mess.

For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon in New Delhi.

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