India is a nation of superlatives. So it should seem unsurprising that its massive power failure earlier this week was the largest in history, affecting more than 650 million Indians – nearly 10 percent of humanity. Coming on the heels of a huge grid failure the previous day, Tuesday’s blackout brought large swaths of northern and eastern India grinding to a halt: trains stalled, subways shut down, shopkeepers shuttered businesses, and hospitals postponed surgeries. Power was restored in a matter of hours, but the blackout offered a sobering reminder that for a third of Indians who live each day without electricity, darkness is a part of life.
As photographs depicting Indians huddled around candlelight spread worldwide, the blackout has ironically cast a bright light on the nation’s deep-seated structural problems – particularly severe shortages of public goods like infrastructure, education, and health – that continue to leave millions behind. Reformers should seize this moment, for the power outage provides an opportunity to spur India’s weak national government into action. The country’s political leaders must heed this warning, or they will remain its greatest obstacle to growth.
In dramatic fashion, India’s unprecedented blackout exposed the magnitude of its power problems for the world to see. The basic issue is inadequate supply. India is the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, with capacity projected to increase nearly 50 percent in the next five years. Yet the country’s Central Electricity Authority recently reported that peak power demand still outstrips supply by almost 10 percent – a shortfall expected to continue into the foreseeable future. In larger states, the figure is as high as 12 percent. Rolling blackouts are a fact of life in India’s urban centers.
And over 300 million Indians, mostly in rural areas, lack any electricity at all.
The underlying causes are manifold. In an ongoing tug-of-war, “errant” states regularly overuse their allocations despite reprimands from the federal government. Meanwhile, rampant power theft and huge transmission losses eat up an astounding thirty-eight percent of power generated—waste that India can ill-afford. The country has failed to implement efficiency-maximizing technology that would allow control systems to rapidly change resistance in transmission lines. Yet unperturbed government officials blithely ignore the recommendations of expert panels convened after similar fiascoes in the past.
India’s flailing power sector is a drag on the economy. The Confederation of Indian Industry estimates that this week’s outages cost businesses several hundred million dollars. Chronic power shortages hurt India’s competitiveness, forcing production cuts, causing underemployment, and even threatening lives. The government’s respected Planning Commission estimates that they reduce India’s growth rate by 1.2 percent. And insufficient power stifles entrepreneurship, too. Indians are rightly proud of their capacity for jugaad, but cost-savvy, homespun resourcefulness has it limits. After all, it’s hard to innovate away the need for electricity.
These problems with power reflect a broader challenge that India faces today: deeply inadequate infrastructure. Anyone who has visited the country for any length of time can bear witness to this fact. While experts have long recognized the need for better highways, more paved roads, modern airports, and decent ports, the Indian government continues to fall short on its investment targets. And pressure on existing facilities will only grow as thousands of new cars enter India’s roads daily, and millions of washing machines and refrigerators are installed for the first time.