NEW DELHI: Power failure hit India for a second day running on Tuesday due to the collapse of the Northern and Eastern grids, cutting power to more than 600 million people in the populous northern and eastern states including the capital Delhi and major cities such as Kolkata. Around over 300,000 passengers were stranded in over 300 trains across eight states after the northern and eastern grids failed, crippling operations across six railway zones in the country. Here are a few facts about the power crisis in India:
What is an electrical grid?
A power grid is an interconnected network of transmission lines for supplying electricity from power suppliers to consumers. Any disruptions in the network causes power outages. India has five regional grids that carry electricity from power plants to respective states in the country.
What leads to a grid failure?
Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia said the blackout may have been caused by a mix of coal shortages and other problems on the grid. The power deficit was worsened by a weak monsoon that lowered hydroelectric generation and kept temperatures high, feeding the appetite for electricity.
Farmers using energy-intensive water pumps for irrigation to save their recently sown crops may also have pushed up the demand.
If the monsoon does not pick up, the grids are expected to come under more stress. Hydro-power accounts for about 20 per cent of installed power capacity but reservoirs have only 24 per cent of the water they can hold -- just about half of what they carried at this time last year.
Many state governments give farmers free or near-free electricity, triggering a vicious cycle of unviable power boards whose supply is so erratic that farmers are forced to pay a steep price to run diesel pumps and generators. Many states have not adjusted tariff for 10 years.
The industry has advocated abolishing a 1973 Act that nationalised coal mining. Changes to the law are expected to allow professional miners to scout for and mine coal.
India's power shortage
India is slow to set up new power capacity principally because it is short of fossil fuels. Coal is mined hesitantly and natural gas, the other feedstock for power plants, is just beginning to flow in from new offshore finds. The government rations both.
The immediate response to a power sector in distress - thermal plants are idling a quarter of their capacity - is to give it a bigger slice of the pie. The sustainable response will need the pie to grow overall.
This January, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up a committee to work through the issues that have been bedeviling electricity generation: a host of problems ranging from coal and gas shortages to environmental clearances to the price at which power is sold in the country.
India's basic energy shortage is compounded by the policy of selling electricity to consumers at politically correct prices. The government-owned distribution monopolies in the states have all but lost their ability to buy power because their political bosses force them to sell it cheap, sometimes free, to voters. This opportunism is hurting the economy: the government estimates unaccounted for sale of power in India, at a third of the total, costs the country 1% of its gross domestic product.
The road ahead
The road ahead for reforms in the power sector is well lit. Introduce competition in all three areas of the business - generation, transmission and distribution - to enhance productivity and contain leakages. Create an independent watchdog that can withstand the political pressures playing on different links of the nation's power supply chain.
Finally, free up pricing to make consumers more responsible for the electricity they use. This has been the broad course of electricity reforms the world over. India's energy pricing, including transport and cooking fuels, is hopelessly caught in competitive populism. Serious attempt to extricate it will need more grids to trip.