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LIGHTS OUT

The phrase, “heart of darkness’’, thanks to Joseph Conrad’s novel, has come to acquire some metaphorical connotations. But a large part of India experienced its literal meaning on Tuesday when the eastern, western and northern power grids collapsed simultaneously. This came on the trail of the collapse of the northern grid, which happened on Monday. The simple reason for this complete and disastrous collapse is the fact that some states drew power well beyond their permissible limits. It is illegal to do this. But who in India is bothered about the finer points of law, especially when the penalty for this kind of law-breaking is trivial? Large parts of northern India are experiencing a shortfall in the monsoon; this has increased the dependence on irrigation, which, in turn, has increased the demand for electricity. It is this that makes states draw more power than they are permitted. More generally, there is an obvious mismatch between the demand and the supply of electricity. More and more people are using electricity — this is a function of growing modernization — while the setting up of power plants and the proper distribution of power have not kept pace with the increasing demand.

Within the overall framework of the demand-supply mismatch, there are certain other important aspects to which attention needs to be drawn. One is the poor maintenance of the transmission lines and therefore their incapacity to carry load, thus increasing the pressure on other lines. In the winter of 2001, when the northern electricity grid had collapsed, this is exactly what had happened. Second is the failure to increase the generation of electricity. One factor behind this failure is the poor supply of coal — the word, “poor”, is used both for quality and quantity. Thermal power units never received adequate amounts of coal. This is one reason why the National Thermal Power Corporation has not been able to increase its generation. The other factor is the populist stance of some political leaders, who often oppose the acquisition of land for power plants as this involves the displacement of farmers. It also needs to be underscored that the power sector remains under state control. As a result, power plants are run not by professional managers and experts but by bureaucrats. Given these circumstances, Tuesday’s catastrophe was waiting to happen. India should, perhaps, get used to the power of darkness.