Why Did So Many People Lose Power In India?

Steve Inskeep talks with New York Times New Delhi correspondent Gardiner Harris about the massive power outage in India. Officials late yesterday said electric service had been restored to most of the 670 million or so people who lost it.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's follow up now on the largest power outage in the history of the world. Some 600 million people, or more, lost electricity in India this week. That's a number of people roughly equal to double the population of the United States.

Now that power is mostly restored, Gardiner Harris of The New York Times is tracking the aftermath. Welcome to the program.

GARDINER HARRIS: Thanks, Steve. Glad to be here.

INSKEEP: Glad you're with us. Do authorities understand what caused such a massive outage?

HARRIS: I think what happened is that there are some northern states that demand far more power than they deliver into the grid. And their demands have gone up in recent days, because the monsoon has not been nearly as good as it needs to be. A lot of farmers are pumping water out of wells. Also, hydropower here is a big deal. It's somewhere between 17 and 20 percent of India's power needs are supplied, and without rain, those hydropower systems aren't delivering the power that they need to.

INSKEEP: So it's just a question of supply and demand. There was a lot of demand, the supply wasn't there.

HARRIS: That's right. But you know, in the United States, it's nearly always on the demand side. You know, demand spikes in the middle of summer and that's when problems occur. In India, it's on the supply side, largely.

INSKEEP: Well, is this outage mainly different from other power outages because of the scale? Are there power outages all the time that are pretty serious, but that we don't hear about here?

HARRIS: You know, Steve, the thing about Indians is that they are incredibly tolerant of things that I think you and I would see as completely intolerant situations. You know, power here is a fitful thing at best. Most buildings - my building being one - have backup generators. In fact, most companies will not move into a building unless it has a backup generator. And many industrial enterprises in India actually have their own power plants, because the government here is so poor at doing the basic things that it needs to do.

INSKEEP: You must have a really big divide then, in India, between the people who can afford a generator, who can afford their own power supply, and the millions who cannot.

HARRIS: And not only between those who can get their private power and those who have to rely on public power, but, of course, there are 300 million people in India who have no access to power whatsoever. Another 300 million people in India get power only a few hours a day. So, you know, India is the country of vast imbalances. You know, there are more poor people in India than in all of Africa combined.

So, you know, when you get into these sorts of situations, it reminds you that India has just vast needs that are unmet most of the time.

INSKEEP: So you're in this city of many, many millions of people, what's it like to walk around, and neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood does not have electric power?

HARRIS: You know, because of the private amounts of power, it gets very spotty, you know. I was in Manhattan when the power went out in 2003, and there has never been a darker place than Times Square when all the power is out, Steve. But here you'll walk from some neighborhoods that are completely dark to others that are sort of fitful. You'll hear the hum of diesel generators here and there. It, of course, led to huge traffic jams throughout Delhi because the traffic light system has no generators associated with it.

Also, the Delhi metro system which carries about two million people a day shut down entirely, so hordes of people had to start coming out of the metro system and they climbed onto the city buses which normally, here, are packed, but yesterday they had people hanging off the sides. So it's a strange place on normal days, and, of course, when the power goes out, gets even stranger.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Gardiner Harris is the New York Times correspondent in New Delhi, India. Thanks very much.

HARRIS: Thanks for having me, Steve.

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