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HEART OF DARKNESS

If it’s dark, then this must be the Third World. A power cut six minutes short of an hour brought busy London to a standstill, stalled trains overground and underground, built up traffic jams to beat the worst ones in any Indian metro, left thousands of people helpless, stuck, some fainting, caused tremendous business damage, infuriated the city mayor, and put the National Grid spokesman passionately on the defensive. The mayor exploded over the “disgraceful” episode, convinced that the National Grid has equipment belonging to a museum. Perhaps this is British politeness. The governor of New Mexico, immediately after the massive power cut that affected around 50 million North Americans just about a fortnight ago, was less caring of the niceties. “We are a superpower with a Third World grid,” he kept repeating.

Condemned to be part of the Third World and — by implication — functioning with equipment that would be better suited to museum display in rooms marked “The pre-history of machines”, countries like India could perhaps permit themselves a moment of amusement. Crisis management is a matter of practice, just as crisis acceptance is a matter of habit — neither an enviable situation perhaps, but there it is. That Indians are not unacquainted with grid failures and cascade effects, or with regular bouts of local electricity failure is hardly something to boast of. Sometimes added to inadequacy of supply, poor maintenance and mechanical failure are the effects of cyclones or violent thunderstorms, floods or even earthquakes. It is easy to see why crisis management — still far from perfect — and crisis acceptance are part of everyday life in India. The London mayor and the New Mexico governor must be enormously relieved that they did not have to deal with fecundity matching the Third World’s. It is unlikely that British efficiency, discipline and good sense could have stood up to a population like Calcutta’s to prevent disaster. But even then, disasters happen. Relying on technology as a fact of life can be a problem, as some of those dealing with the 11,435 heat wave deaths in France this month may have fleetingly realized.

What perhaps the governor of New Mexico had not anticipated when he exploded is that a team of electricity grid controllers from his country would come over to talk to officials of PowerGrid Corporation in Delhi about possible protections against cascade effects of grid failure. This, ultimately, is one of the keys to the First World’s efficiency. For countries like Britain and the United States of America, the cost of a crisis is measured in terms of wealth as well as the distress of their citizens. The two are inextricably linked in the developed world, that is precisely why it is developed. Its countries will learn new lessons to keep things that way, they will go to the darkest places to pick brains and materials, so that they can keep darkness forever beyond their boundaries, enveloping those other worlds. The efficient managers of the First World would have been less disconcerted with the unexpected dark had they heard what the ancient Indian sages tried to teach the world. The source of enlightenment is the source of darkness, they said.

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