India: World’s Largest Power Blackout is Not Really a Surprise

Posted on August 2, 2012


A few years ago, I traveled to India on business.  I have been to 38 foreign countries over the years, and I am not counting touch-and-go stops at airports; I mean, I have worked in, lived in, traveled in, and really seen 38 countries up close and personal.  Of all of those countries – and that includes some really impoverished, dangerous places – India is the one I am least likely to ever want to return to.

Don’t get me wrong, the Indians can be brilliant.  They have a multi-cultural, multi-lingual nation full of great art, ancient artifacts, beautiful textiles and delicious food.  They’ve got Bollywood, and Bangalore is another Silicon Valley.  But despite all of that, their infrastructure is a shambles, an inadequate third-world foundation of tangled clots of rotting pipes and cables upon which the nation seems to mound its first-world aspirations.  And even the aspirations fall short, considering that some 300 million Indians – equivalent to nearly the whole US population! – never have had access to electricity, much less the 670 million who lost power in this week’s blackout.  Considering that when you turn on your spigot in New Delhi, water may or may not come out.  Considering that a huge number of people, both city and country dwellers, have no plumbing or sanitation.

On my trip there, I had occasion to travel from New Delhi to Amritsar.  Somewhere along the way, I was shocked to see a full-grown man with his pants around his ankles, squatting with his backside not five feet from the traffic lane, doing his business.  Aiieeee!  I’m blind!  I averted my eyes and wondered what the hell was wrong with that guy.  Actually, nothing.  As we continued along the road, it soon became apparent that this is just how it’s done out there.  The other thing I noticed along the road was what I came to think of as “shingle farms,” where manure is fashioned into dinner-plate-sized patties and set out to dry, eventually being sold as fuel.

Well.  When I got back to the embassy, I asked one of my co-workers what was up with the… um… toilet practices along the road.  He rolled his eyes and said, “You know, they can have their Bollywood and their Silicon Valley and their nukes.  But as long as they have that, they are a third-world country as far as I am concerned.”  I wondered what happened to all the poop.  Didn’t it seem, with all the men pooping on the side of the road, there should be a ribbon of poop all along the side of the highway?  “Oh, no,” my friend answered, “The Untouchables come out at night and pick it all up.”  Oh – so they were paid to clean up the roads?  No, as it turns out, those shingles I had observed were not composed solely of animal manure.

So that opened a whole new can of worms.  When I had gotten off the plane in Delhi, there was a nasty smoke smell, one that I never got used to the whole time I was there.  And whence came this smoke?  Well, it wasn’t all wood smoke, that was certain.  Now the smoke took on a whole new level of revolting in my mind.  Not only that, but – whatThe Untouchables?  Didn’t the Indian Constitution do away with the caste system?  Yes, it did, but the caste system is alive and well.  I was liking what I was learning less and less.  But back to the infrastructure.

India has made great strides in some areas, for some people.  But for millions, life is little different than it might have been a hundred, or two hundred, or a thousand years ago.  Nasty, brutish, and short.  Except now there is a lot more competition for resources.  Indian states elbow each other out of the way in the crush for energy and water, just as their citizens scuffle with their buckets and jugs at the water trucks.

If the government is capable of changing how it does its infrastructure business, it sure doesn’t show.  After power was somewhat restored on Wednesday, according to the New York Times, Veerappa Moily, India’s power minister, said,  “I can reassure the entire nation.  That kind of situation will never repeat in the national scene.”  Never say never, Mr. Moily.  After all, Tuesday’s outage followed on the heels of one almost equally large on Monday.