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More than 600 million people affected by latest blackout in India

July 31, 2012 |  7:42 am

India-blackout

NEW DELHI -- India’s electricity grids suffered another massive failure Tuesday, the second in two days, frustrating commuters, stranding coal miners and leaving more than 600 million people without lights, rail service or air conditioning in 90-degree heat.

R.K. Nayak, chairman of the Power Grid Corporation of India, told reporters at a new conference in the capital that the problem was difficult to pinpoint given the network’s complexity, but that he hoped to see the system up and running by midnight.

“Some sections might have caused tripping but it is difficult to give you anything at this time,” he added.

By early evening, power officials were reporting that around 40% of the system was operating normally again.

The massive outage -- billed as one of the world’s largest, affecting half of India's 1.2 billion people -- occurred soon after the northern grid was powered back up after a 15-hour failure Monday, only to collapse again shortly after 1 p.m. Tuesday  That tripped the eastern and northeastern grids in quick succession, leaving much of the country in the dark and the capital with 1% of its usual electricity supply.

Nearly twice as many people were affected by Tuesday’s failure as were without power Monday.

As the outage spread, state officials stepped up their finger-pointing, accusing neighboring states of taking more than their allocated share of power, even as opposition politicians slammed the government for mismanagement and policy paralysis.

“This lowers the esteem of the country in the eyes of the world,” said Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “The country is suffering.”

As the Delhi Metro ground to a halt, passengers in the capital were forced to clamber down from rail cars and walk or wait until emergency power allowed trains to reach the nearest station. Some 350 trains were affected nationwide.

“This has been a big worry,” said Shobha Agrawal, 49, reached by telephone on a train from Chandigarh to Mathura that usually takes eight hours but had already been delayed for several more. “And my son’s very anxious back at home since I’m traveling alone.”

While major airports and larger hospitals switched to backup generators, smaller hospitals and clinics were forced to postpone medical procedures or make do with ambient light as even bigger ones struggled.

“We are facing a lot of problems,” said Harish Chawla, a manager at Delhi’s Holy Angel Hospital, which does have backup power. “You can’t trust generators to keep running dependably for 10 or 12 hours. We had to reschedule a surgery since it was risky to go ahead. And patients don’t want to risk an operation anyway during a power failure.”

As many as 200 coal miners working at the Eastern Coal Fields mines in West Bengal state were stranded underground when power needed to operate the pulley system went out.

“We are trying to rescue the coal miners,” Mamata Banerjee told reporters in the state capital, Kolkata. “You need power supplies to run the lifts in the underground mines."

Company officials said they had advised miners to move to a location within the mines where there was sufficient ventilation and were trying to get food and water to the men, adding that they were in no immediate danger.

This second disaster in rapid succession -- despite promises by power officials Monday that the problem was fixed -- underscores India’s weak infrastructure and crisis-management systems and the nation’s struggle to satisfy the needs of its increasingly affluent population and growing industry.

Rolling blackouts are common in Indian cities given an aging grid and a 9% electricity shortfall at peak periods, so many houses and companies have backup generators. But the collapse of an entire grid is rare, with the last such failure involving the northern grid occurring in 2001.

Richa Hingorani, who works for a civic group in Delhi, said she figured it was the usual one- or two-hour interruption when electricity first cut out around 2:30 a.m. Monday. But as temperatures rose inside their house, family members became increasingly anxious, fanning themselves for four hours with newspapers until dawn broke.

As Hingorani set off for work, things only got worse.

“With bumper-to-bumper traffic, it took me 40 minutes to travel a distance that should’ve taken 10 minutes,” she said. “Work at the office has suffered. There’s no Internet, and little respite when you leave the office since there are so many crowds.”

The government announced after the first grid failure that it was appointing a three-member panel to study the causes and submit a report within 15 days.

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-- Mark Magnier. Tanvi Sharma contributed to this report.

Photo: Passengers wait for a train at a rail station in Kolcatta during a massive power failure Tuesday. Credit: Piyal Adhikary / European Pressphoto Agency

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