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India’s Real Power Shortage

What was remarkable about India’s power collapse was how few people it affected. One large fraction has good fall-back options. Another large fraction never had electricity anyway.

While I was wandering about yesterday in Guwahati, in the northeastern state of Assam, a friend called. It was dusk. "There's no electricity," he said. I didn't need the reminder. It was a few hours into the power collapse across northern and eastern India and I was drenched in sweat.

India Power Outage

A family eats dinner in the dark on Aug. 1, 2012 in Srinagar, India. (Dar Yasin / AP Photo)

My friend went on: "There's no point sitting inside somewhere, right, so why don't you join me for a walk?" We drove to a hill nearby. By the time we arrived, night had set in. We spent the next hour walking up and down the hill, a total of three times. It was a good workout, but the darkness was so complete that at one point, I nearly lost my footing and didn't know what I'd stepped in. Not that I wanted to know.

All through that panting hour, we could see a shimmering cornucopia of lights in the distance, like some fantastic Middle Earth castle. "Guwahati refinery," said my friend when I asked. "They have their own separate power supply." All right, I said, that seems reasonable. A refinery probably deserves uninterrupted power. But what about these lights in buildings and shops along the road that run at the base of the hill? How is it that they had electricity? I mean, if we hadn't known, it wouldn't have struck us that we were in the middle of a massive electricity shutdown: these lights were that numerous, that normal.

"Hmm," said my friend. "I guess they all have generators."

The media has explored several facets of the far-reaching collapse of India's power grids this week. The shortage in production of electricity; the amount of electricity that's lost to theft; the way that Power Minister Sushil Shinde moved up the ranks to become Home Minister after the blackouts; the blame game being played between Indian states about which one drew more power; the lamentable state of that catch-all phrase "Indian infrastructure"; the blow this supposedly deals to our country's aspirations to become a superpower: all of it has been and will be argued and discussed endlessly. (Please don't miss the lone tweeter who's trying valiantly to make #SackShinde trend.)

About India Wide-Angle

Dilip D'Souza, author of "Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America" and "The Curious Case of Binayak Sen," is the winner of the Newsweek/Daily Beast Award for South Asia Commentary. He lives in Bombay with his wife, two children, and two cats. Follow his Twitter account @DeathEndsFun.

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