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Blessed With a Curse
Randeep Ramesh, Tuesday 31st July 2012 18:42
To leave one in 20 people on the globe's surface without electricity, that lifeblood of modern society, in the hairdryer heat of an Indian summer is unfortunate. To do it again to one in 12 of the world's population a day later is an unpardonable carelessness.
Yet while politicians argued in Delhi, across the cowbelt of northern India more than 600 million were left to perspire in underground trains, shopping malls, offices, restaurants and homes. A few decades ago this was hardly news: it is fair to say that things rarely worked in the India of yesterday. Frequent blackouts meant the insides of fridges were invariably hotter than the air outside them. When the first modern cars arrived families took to riding around – so they could enjoy air-conditioning.
Even today half of rural India, where most of the country lives, is not connected to the electricity grid. However things have been changing – and that is part of the problem. Thanks to India's economy – which will expand by 6.5% this year, a growth rate which dwarfs the western world's snail-like performance – the country's middle-class homes are stocked with air conditioners, flat-screen televisions, microwaves and computers. There's just not enough electricity to run them all.
Despite its soaring energy needs, India has one of the lowest per capita rates of consumption of power in the world – 734 kWh power consumed per person a year as compared to a world average of 2,429.
The reasons are both old and new. Despite ploughing $130bn (£80bn) into the power industry in the past five years, India's infrastructure remains dilapidated or nonexistent. Getting the funds to invest is difficult when the poor often steal electricity and politicians dish out free power to wealthy farmers at election time.
Only a tenth of the power sector is in private hands, which may lead some to believe the state would act in the interests of the very poorest. Quite the opposite has occurred. Electricity companies are headed by bureaucrats and run like government departments with little accountability to consumers and a disturbing tolerance for bribes. It is absurd given the size and scale of the blackout that the minister in charge is likely to be promoted in a forthcoming government reshuffle.
This serves as an unappealing backdrop to this week's misery, which was almost certainly sparked by the lax attitude of the government and officials of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. The newly-elected administration appears not to have made any contingency plans in case its hydroelectric dams ran dry.
After a poor monsoon season, this is exactly the predicament the state – along with other smaller northern regions – found themselves in. So Uttar Pradesh drew on the national grid to meet demand it could not fulfil. In doing so it overloaded first its own grid and then set off a cascade of system collapses across northern India.
Power, so vital for growth, is India's biggest bottleneck. It is a paradox that in China unelected leaders are careful to provide the masses with material benefits such as electricity, water and roads because they legitimise dictatorship. Whereas in India, democracy allows just the opposite: free elections excuse the political class from providing the basics of life to the masses who have elected them.
• Randeep Ramesh was the Guardian's south Asia correspondent from 2003-2009