Yesterday afternoon, I lived through what the Indian as well as the international presses are now dubbing the largest electrical blackout in history.1 At 1 pm IST, India’s northern, eastern, and northeastern grids shut down, cutting power from Rajasthan to Manipur. While the infamous 2003 blackout of eastern North America affected 50 million people, the 2012 India blackout affected more than 600 million people.

For my part, I hardly noticed the outage. I am currently staying in Jaipur—which until yesterday had had remarkably reliable power—but the blackout reminded me of when I lived in rural northeast India, where power failures were a daily occurrence. There were planned as well as unplanned blackouts. Unplanned power failures occurred when weather disrupted the transmission lines—which happened often in stormy Meghalaya. In planned outages, the electric utility (in my case, the Meghalaya Energy Corporation) made up for a shortage of electrical generation capacity by deliberately cutting power to selected areas. These outages worked by the clock—for instance: power off from 9 to 11 in the morning, and again from 2 to 4 in the afternoon.

Major outages of the type that hit north India are rare in this country, but smaller-scale outages in many parts of the country—not just the rural Northeast—occur frequently. Yesterday’s outage disrupted transport in many northern cities, but it did not bring life in India to a halt. In much of the country, Indians have come to expect minor outages, and they are prepared to deal with them. In the United States, power is reliable enough that only facilities that rely heavily on electricity, such as hospitals and data centers, have backup power sources. In India, by contrast, hotels, restaurants, stores, schools, and even some private residences have diesel generators. The generators tend to deliver less current than the grid, but they tend to have enough capacity to power some lights for productivity and fans for sanity.

The widespread use of generators as backup power in India is one example of the decentralization of services. In this respect, India has taken a different approach to infrastructural technology than the western nations. Comparatively few people in the United States have generators because they feel that they can trust the grid to deliver power to them all or most of the time. By contrast, power in India is less reliable, and some Indians have compensated by installing backup sources of power. The result is that access to reliable electricity is based on wealth, and only a small percentage of the Indian population can afford to purchase and run their own generators. India’s wealthy minority could produce their own electricity during the blackout, while the rest of the population of the affected areas did without.

  1. See, for instance, this article in the New York Times. []