Published July 31, 2012
NEW DELHI – India's energy crisis cascaded over half the country Tuesday when three of its regional grids collapsed, leaving 620 million people without government-supplied electricity for hours in, by far, the world's biggest blackout.
Hundreds of trains stalled across the country and traffic lights went out, causing widespread traffic jams in New Delhi. Electric crematoria stopped operating, some with bodies half burnt, power officials said.
Two hundred workers were stranded in three coal mines in West Bengal when the blackout cut off electricity to elevators in their underground pits, a mining company official told The Times of India.
"We are waiting for the restoration of power to bring them up through the lifts, but there is no threat to their lives or any reason to panic," Nildari Roy, a senior official at the mines' operator, Eastern Coalfields Limited, told The Times of India.
The massive failure -- a day after a similar, but smaller power failure -- has raised serious concerns about India's outdated infrastructure and the government's inability to meet its huge appetite for energy as the country aspires to become a regional economic superpower. The power failure affected people across 20 of India's 28 states -- about double the population of the United States.
Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde blamed the new crisis on states taking more than their allotted share of electricity.
"Everyone overdraws from the grid. Just this morning I held a meeting with power officials from the states and I gave directions that states that overdraw should be punished. We have given instructions that their power supply could be cut," he told reporters.
The Bharatiya Janata Party criticized the government saying the outage shows complete mismanagement as well as policy failure, The Times of India reports.
"It is a huge failure of the management in the power sector by the UPA government," Prakash Javadekar, a BJP spokesman, told the Times of India.
"There failure is twin failure. It is management failure as well as the police failure," he said.
Javadekar also called for an apology from the prime minister and power minister, the news station reports.
Prime Minister Shinde said all alternative arrangements have been made but said the country would "still have to wait for some time."
"I have been informed that northern and eastern, both the grids have failed. I have put in all my people at the job. The power grid chairman is working. Now, we are getting power from the western region and some other places," Shinde told The Times of India.
The blackout was unusual in its reach, stretching from the border with Myanmar in the northeast to the Pakistani border about 1,870 miles away. Its impact, however, was softened by Indians' familiarity with frequent blackouts and the widespread use of backup generators for major businesses and key facilities such as hospitals and airports.
Shinde later said power was fully restored in the northeast grid four hours after it went down, and that the east grid had 35 percent power and the north grid 45 percent. R.N. Nayak, chairman of Power Grid Corp., which runs the nation's power system, said he expected to have full power restored later in the evening.
The outages came just a day after India's northern power grid collapsed for several hours. Indian officials managed to restore power several hours later, but at 1:05 p.m. Tuesday the northern grid collapsed again, said Shailendre Dubey, an official at the Uttar Pradesh Power Corp. in India's largest state. About the same time, the eastern grid failed and then the northeastern grid followed, energy officials in those regions said. The grids serve more than half India's population.
In West Bengal, express trains and local electric trains were stopped at stations across the state of West Bengal on the eastern grid. Crowds of people thronged the stations, waiting for any transport to take them to their destinations.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said it would take at least 10 to 12 hours to restore power and asked office workers to go home.
"The situation is very grave. We are doing everything to restore power," West Bengal Power Minister Manish Gupta said.
Workers pumped oxygen into four coal mines in West Bengal's Asansol-Durgapur coal belt, where the power cut left 200 miners trapped underground, said N. Roy, an official with the state-owned Eastern Coalfields Ltd.
Officials were trying to hire heavy-duty generators to get the elevators working again and had asked the trapped miners to use their headlights sparingly in the unlit mine to conserve batteries, he said.
Workers were able to ascend from 10 other mines using backup generators to power the elevators, he said.
New Delhi's Metro rail system, which serves about 1.8 million people a day, immediately shut down for the second day in a row. Police said they managed to evacuate Delhi's busy Rajiv Chowk station in under half an hour before closing the shutters.
S.K. Jain, 54, said he was on his way to file his income tax return when the Metro closed and now would almost certainly miss the deadline.
Tuesday's blackout eclipsed Monday's in India, which spanned territory including 370 million people. The third largest blackout affected 100 million people in Indonesia in 2005, according to reports by The Associated Press.
India's demand for electricity has soared along with its economy in recent years, but utilities have been unable to meet the growing needs. India's Central Electricity Authority reported power deficits of more than 8 percent in recent months.
In some areas, vast amounts of power are pirated through unauthorized wiring that taps into the electrical system.
This year's 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. One-third of India's households do not even have electricity to power a light bulb, according to last year's census.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.