This week, the world's largest democracy experienced the world's largest power outage. Nearly 700 million - that's more than half a billion - Indians were said to have been without power Tuesday. No air conditioning. No traffic lights. No metro system. Most of the power is back now, but the outage had resonance for me from the long-ago years when I lived in New Delhi and experienced power failures almost as regularly as I did steaming cups of dark, sweet Indian tea.

Fifty years ago, most Indians had no electricity. Power belonged to the rich. As the young wife of a modestly paid U.S. civil servant, I, most improbably, was rich in comparison to the bulk of the Indians. And yet, most evenings, standing around at receptions or visiting friends, we would hear a low groan as the lights and air conditioning flickered, then died. We just chatted away to the faint clink of ice melting in our drinks - chatting, with trickles of sweat running down our faces and fancy silk dresses or saris. We joked about the shoebox-shaped power station in town. How the guy in charge probably had to walk from one end to the other, flick some particular switch to keep the power on, and we figured he stopped for a tea break en route. We considered getting him roller skates and a thermos to keep him - and us - happier.

Now, this may sound heartless to you. It was well-intentioned joking in those days of can-do American spirit, when you went overseas to do good, to help development in an ancient country that had been independent for just 20 years, to introduce new ideas about agriculture, water, sanitation - to try to make things better.

Today, the power problems in India are the bittersweet fruits of development and freedom. A middle class, which barely existed when we were there, is thriving, driving, expecting power for their subways. They're living in ways which had been available to just a privileged few. Deep discrepancies remain, but the fact that the blackout came as a shock to so many millions is a revelation - difficult as it was to experience - of just how far the world's largest democracy has come.


C AND C MUSIC FACTORY: (Singing) I've got the power.

STAMBERG: You're listening to NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.