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India's blackouts are beacon for reform

India's rambunctious democracy is the foundation of its strength, but its leaders have for years lacked long-term planning to deal with the country's corruption, poverty and substandard infrastructure.

This week, India came to a standstill. Power failures in the north and east left more than 600 million people without electricity, reduced traffic to a crawl, hobbled the country's railway network and trapped coal miners underground. It was a scene out of a disaster movie, ill-suited to the economic and political giant that India has become.

No one will pretend that a bit of disruption isn't natural to India's major cities. Rolling blackouts are commonplace in Delhi and on the outskirts of Mumbai, leaving residents without lights and air conditioning for up to eight hours a day. The antiquated national electricity grid has been under strain for years, but the two massive interruptions this week should be a wake-up call.

India's national prestige is on the line. Economic growth has slowed this past year - a reality check to many Indians' aspirations of rapid development out of poverty in the next decade. India's rambunctious democracy is the foundation of its strength, but it hardly lends itself to coordinated top-down planning. That applies to long-term infrastructure improvements (decades overdue), as well as the everyday functioning of services (often disastrously mismanaged).

The fundamental national challenge remains how to allocate the country's growing wealth. Half the population still lives on less than $2 a day; with a population of 1.2 billion people, India is now estimated to be home to a third of the world's poor. Institutionalised corruption and creaking bureaucracy, meanwhile, are par for the course.

At this week's power outages, Delhi's middle classes might have complained about an interruption in air conditioning, but lower income Indians had hours added to already laborious commutes, or lost two days of income altogether. The poor infrastructure takes a daily toll: in a country where many go hungry, almost half of India's farm produce spoils before reaching its destination.

At heart, this is an issue of governance. New Delhi's decades-old inability to organise major infrastructure projects, and in this case its inability to rein in provincial governments that use more than their share of electricity, signal an unnecessary crisis. India's powerhouse can do better than this.

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