The lights flickered and went out. The ceiling fan slowly stopped spinning. The whir of the air conditioner faded into silence. Right away, I recognized the onset of another power outage and cursed at myself for forgetting to charge my laptop. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in the midst of one the biggest blackouts in human history.
On Monday and Tuesday, millions of people were without power across the entire northern portion of India. The affected area spanned over 2,000 miles, approximately the distance from San Diego to Florida. During the worst of the blackouts, an estimated 600 million people lost electricity, almost ten percent of the world’s population.
The power failures made international news, such that my friends and family members in America heard about their extent before I did. Several news stories portrayed the situation as an unparalleled catastrophe. For instance, here’s the opening line of a New York Times article from July 31:
“It had all the makings of a disaster movie: More than half a billion people without power. Trains motionless on the tracks. Miners trapped underground. Subway lines paralyzed. Traffic snarled in much of the national capital.”
In my opinion, millions of people inconvenienced at once would make an absolutely terrible disaster movie. Worse even than anything directed by Michael Bay. For a catastrophe, it could not have been more mundane. Most of the effects described in that opening line happen almost every day in India.
Half a billion people without power? Over 300 million people in India’s rural areas have never had access to electricity, and another 300 million have access that is erratic and unreliable. And that’s not to mention the routine power cuts in many major cities.
Trains and subway lines stopped? Delays are common for Indian rail-based transport. Maybe they don’t happen at the same time across half the country, but passengers should expect any journey to take longer than intended.
Miners trapped in dangerous conditions? Indian miners work long hours in small spaces, highly susceptible to accidents and lung disease, and even though they’re technically free to quit at any time, economic necessity often prevents them from doing so.
Crazy traffic? In any decent-sized Indian city, vehicles crowd the streets in a seemingly anarchic mess, constantly honking to avoid collision.
All of these problems stem from India’s tremendous population density. The country has four times as many people as the U.S. living in a third of the area, and the population continues to skyrocket. With so many people sharing limited space and resources, issues of transportation and infrastructure are inevitable.
For most of the time that the power was out, I sat in the office where I work, typing on my laptop until it died, chatting with my co-workers, and sweating in the unmitigated heat. Power outages happen regularly in India. They’re usually scheduled, with the times printed in the newspaper, but I haven’t gotten in the habit of checking. When the power goes out, I just roll my eyes and wait.
People here have become grudgingly accustomed to the power cuts. Many hospitals and workplaces have purchased generators or inverters so that they can maintain basic function without relying on the grid. On a given summer day, most Indians will lose electricity for up to a few hours. The recent power outages were exceptional only in that they happened all at once.
At the heart of India’s struggle to provide power is the infrastructure problem that I mentioned earlier. The electrical grid can’t keep up with the growing population, which has already surpassed 1.2 billion.
Approximately 70% of India’s electricity comes from coal, and while the country has some of the world’s largest coal reserves, the quality of this coal is often inadequate for modern power plants. Even the useable coal is extracted inefficiently. A government-owned company called Coal India controls 80% of production, and it is required to sell coal at a fraction of the market price.
But I’m not one to argue that “burn more coal” is a solution to any of the world’s energy problems. After all, the boom in fossil fuel combustion in developing countries is one of the largest contributors to global climate change, and coal has a range of harmful effects locally. For example, it’s a critical threat to India’s tiger population.
In contrast, renewable energy has shown great potential in India. Overall, it makes up a very small percentage of the country’s power supply, but it’s been successful where it’s been attempted. A growing number of rural areas get their electricity from off-grid solar power, and I know from personal experience that India does not want for sun.
Here in Jodhpur, wind turbines provide a significant amount of electricity. Tuesday’s blackout, which was the most widespread, lasted only two hours because the district’s supply of wind energy picked up the slack.
After a couple hours in the dark, the lights in the office flickered back on. The fan started spinning. The air conditioner beeped and began to hum. With the power restored, my co-workers and I went back to our computers, and we resumed our normal tasks. Millions of other people ultimately did the same. Life went on in India. The power had gone out before, and undoubtedly, it would go out again.