x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

World's biggest power blackout hits India

More than 600 million have been left without power as electricity grid failure cripples the north, and another stalls trains, knocks out traffic lights and traps miners underground.

Traffic crawls in central New Delhi after signals stopped functioning following a failure in India’s northern power grid. Half of the country was blacked out.
Traffic crawls in central New Delhi after signals stopped functioning following a failure in India’s northern power grid. Half of the country was blacked out.

NEW DELHI // The biggest blackout in history brought India to a standstill yesterday.

One day after power cuts caused chaos in the north, an even bigger failure left more than 600 million - half the population - without electricity for hours, stalled hundreds of trains, knocked out traffic lights and trapped coal miners underground.

"The situation is very grave. We are doing everything to restore power," said Manish Gupta, the West Bengal power minister.

Indians took to social networking sites to ridicule the government. On Monday the country had to buy extra power from tiny Bhutan, and as half the country sweltered without electricity yesterday the power minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, was promoted to head the interior ministry. "Power Minister Shinde has become the new Home Minister. Today we are powerless, tomorrow homeless?" Anurag Thakur wrote on Twitter.

Yesterday's chaos started at about 1pm and stretched across 20 of India's 28 states, from the eastern and northeastern borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar to the northwest, which is on the border with Pakistan.

The power cut embarrassed a government that has failed to build up enough capacity to meet soaring demand. "Even before we could figure out the reason for yesterday's failure, we had more grid failures today," said RN Nayak, head of the state-run Power Grid Corporation.

Mr Shinde blamed states for drawing more than their share of electricity from the overburdened grid.

"I've given instructions that whoever overdraws power will be punished," he said just before his promotion in a cabinet reshuffle.

Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has vowed to fast-track stalled power and infrastructure projects and introduce free-market reforms aimed at reviving India's flagging economy, but he has been criticised for dragging his feet.

By afternoon rush-hour, up to 80 per cent of power had been restored in northern India and up to 45 per cent in eastern India. But electricity had not been restored to all of New Delhi, and streets were clogged with commuters trying to get home.

The capital's metro, which carries about 1.8 million passengers a day, was shut down for the second day in a row. Police managed to evacuate the busy Rajiv Chowk station in under half an hour before closing the shutters. "I thought this was a temporary problem," said Ramesh Garg, 39, a businessman, near the Moolchand metro station. "Now it looks like this is an India-wide problem, which makes me worry about many things, like water supply."

"I am anxious to get home," said Shyam Nath Singh, 42, a New Delhi tailor, as he watched buses already crowded with passengers pass him by.

"We can handle power cuts, no problem, but it will be unsafe to be outside if there is no electricity at night."

By mid-evening, services had been restored on the metro.

There was chaos on the roads as traffic lights stopped working. In Delhi, police stood at road crossings to guide vehicles, and the pace of traffic slowed to a crawl.

In the state of West Bengal, at least 200 miners were trapped underground in Burdwan when the lifts stopped working and no backup generator was available. The miners were eventually brought to the surface.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, told schools to close early and all government and private sector employees to leave for home before the end of the working day, to help reduce the commuter chaos. Ms Banerjee predicted some would be without power for at least 12 hours.

"When the electricity will be back, and which day it will return, I don't know," said Gautami Chatterjee, 19, a college student, who spent the day navigating her way home on foot through chaotic traffic in south Kolkata.

Ms Chatterjee, who usually travels by the Calcutta Metro, decided not to go underground yesterday, although the public transport was unaffected by the power cut.

"I heard what happened in Delhi yesterday, I am not risking getting stuck in there," she said.

The power failed in some city hospitals and office buildings had to fire up diesel generators.

India's electricity distribution and transmission is mostly state run, with private companies operating in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Less than a quarter of generation is private nationwide.

More than half the country's electricity is generated by coal, with hydro power and nuclear also contributing to the power grid.

Power shortages and a creaky road and rail network have weighed heavily on the country's efforts to industrialise. Grappling with the slowest economic growth in nine years, the government recently scaled back a target to pump US$1 trillion (Dh3.67tr) into infrastructure over the next five years.

In addition, vast amounts of power are pirated through unauthorised wiring that taps into the grid.

The power deficit was worsened by a weak monsoon that lowered hydroelectric generation and kept temperatures higher, further increasing electricity usage as people seek to cool off.

But any connection to the grid remains a luxury for many. A third of households do not have access to electricity, according to last year's census.

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse

twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Surya Bhattacharya on @SuryatapaB