Friday, 3 August 2012

Was there a grid breakdown?

NYT talking about the blackout
UK got into the Indian news too
I hear that on the 30th and 31st of July, the world woke up to the news of the biggest blackout in history, the great Indian blackout. First chaos and then darkness engulfed most of north India (well, darkness yes but not chaos really).

The nifty map with black and yellow (Courtesy: Hindustan Times)
As I got from the news papers the next morning (yes, I didn't know of the big black out until the next morning), 3 grids (the northern, the eastern and the northeastern) broke down resulting in collapse of power supply in 22 states and union territories. A nifty map in a news paper shaded the north Indian states in black leaving the rest of India in yellow (I wonder why yellow? Is it the colour of light coming from the incandescent light bulbs?). India loves maths, we crave for data. So, the newspaper presented interesting data by the map. 600 million (since when did we start using that system. I thought we dealt in lakhs and crores) people affected and 300 trains delayed . The next page had more data but I'll leave that to the paper.

30th July, Black Monday
31st July, Terrible Tuesday
 The newspaper people are also very quick to interview some common people and publish their plight as quotes. If nothing, these surely make for an interesting read. So, Rahul was complaining about the autowalahs (some may know autos as tuk-tuks) overcharging. Sanjay said his studies were suffering and he was facing difficulties in completing his assignments. Pooja was going around with a dead cell phone as she couldn't find a place to charge its batteries. Vivek was facing difficulties finding a transport to take his sick wife to the hospital. (All names have been changed)
Since, I was looking at the Delhi edition of the newspaper, it mostly contained news of the Delhi and the suburban folk. On monday the headline of the second page was "Black Monday" and on tuesday it was called "dark times" and "terrible tuesday" (the newspaper guys are highly creative). Anyway, what happened in Delhi was very nearly chaos. The Delhi metro (regularly used by office goers in the morning) wasn't working, the people had to take the buses (oh poor folk of Delhi), very crowded buses to office. There were pictures of people hanging to the bus doors, putting their life on line (such is the dedication of Indian people to work). Traffic lights were left dysfunctional leading to long jams. Indian cars work on Newton's first law of motion. An object will remain in its state of inertia (whether static or in motion) until applied with an external force. So, our cars don't stop until we see a red light (traffic light). Logically, no traffic light, no stopping. And since we are so dedicated to our work, we are always in a hurry. We don't stop for anyone, we must be the first one to go. Again logically, if everyone has to go first there is bound to be a traffic jam. Anyway, I also head on the television that the poor kids had to go to the school in crumpled uniforms (no electricity for ironing).

This was Delhi, the capital of India. Such shame we has been forced upon us. The capital of our country in such a sorry state. Even, the prime minister "experienced an uncomfortable afternoon" and the President had to turn to his power back up. Now demands are being made to create an island grid in Delhi (just like the one Mumbai has) so that it remains unaffected by these blackout. Let the rest of the country deal with them. 

Local page of a hindi daily; a small paragraph in the bottom right corner talking about delayed trains
As, I said before, I got the news of the blackout from the national news papers next morning. I woke my laptop up from its overnight slumber and connected it to the internet (yes I have internet), the speed of which may give competition to a snail and saw on the websites of the leading national dailies, a blackout that had gripped a large part of the nation. However, we in this small town of Bihar (an easter stante of India) did not leave alone get affected, even feel the semi-national blackout. The local pages of the newspaper reported in a corner that trains were delayed due to a big blackout. Nothing about local life and blackout. This is because my town lives in a perpetual blackout. Electricity is like a guest here. In hindi guest is called atithi (a-tithi) meaning one who doesn't has a fixed time/date of arrival or departure. This guest comes for a couple of hours and like a guest leaves quickly only to come after a long period of time, sometimes days on end. So, during this semi-national blackout people in this little town thought it was just one of the regular power cuts that may last for anything between a few hours to a few days. Life went on at its usual pace.

The trusted inverter sitting under the stairs in a household
The critical question here is if a big city like Delhi, the national capital with all its modern facilities and superior technologies broke down during the grid failure, how come life went as usual in this small town of Bihar? The answer is simple, here people have weaved their life around the lack of electricity. While the blackout was an extraordinary event in several parts of north India, it was baseline (business as usual) here. Here, people's lives have been build around things like inverters (I gave a little explanation about inverters in my last post), generator sets (both diesel and kerosene), kerosene lamps and now in some cases solar panels. So the absence of electricity is a normal event rather not even an event here. People keep generators for continuous electricity supply. In every commercial establishment here a big or small generator can be seen spewing out smoke throughout the day. As night falls, the generators at the commercial establishments shut down and the domestic ones start. People who can't afford the running costs of generators keep inverters with multiple batteries in the household, some even keep multiple inverters.

Most of the town runs on generators
Those who can't afford either get a connection from generator electricity suppliers. Yes, entrepreneurs here have smartly developed a business around the absence of electricity. A central generator set supplies electricity to several households connected in some sort of a mini grid. These entrepreneurs cater to both commercial as well as domestic consumers with domestic supply mostly being night time. People who can't even afford a generator connection, use kerosene lamps of various kinds for light (yes, kerosene lamps are used not only in indian villages but towns too) and try to adapt their bodies to the summer heat so that they get a good night's sleep. There are no lifts in the buildings here, no traffic lights, no metro or any other hi-tech technology that may require electricity. The health care system here is equipped with some of the best doctors and best facilities, all running on diesel generators. The generator often keeps running even when the electricity supply resumes as the voltage of grid supply stays insufficient to run the equipments. So, even with grid, there often is grid failure. The grid is present and absent at the same time.

So, while the biggest grid failure created havoc in some part of north India, many other parts didn't even register it. This for me is one of the ways in which the term 'multiple Indias' come to 'light' (Ironically). Such is the development paradigm of India.

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