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Indians sweat and seethe as blackout spreads

An Indian barber gives a haircut for a customer by candlelight at his shop in Kolkata.

NEW DELHI: Anger and frustration boiled over on the streets of India’s cities Tuesday, as the second mass power cut in as many days paralyzed transport networks and hit small businesses across the country.

Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who has been grappling with the outages, was named the new home minister, in what the government called a “minor” Cabinet reshuffle.

He replaces Palaniappan Chidambaram, who became the country’s new finance minister.

After a grid failure the day before knocked out power in nine states, Tuesday’s monster outage hit 20 states in the northern half of India, from Rajasthan in the west to eastern Arunachal Pradesh bordering China.

As well as covering a much wider region, the second blackout had a far greater impact as it occurred in the middle of the working day.

“I can understand this happening once in a while but how can one allow such a thing to happen two days in a row?” Anu Chopra, a saleswoman in a cosmetics shop in New Delhi, said.

“It just shows our infrastructure is in a complete mess. There is no transparency and no accountability whatsoever,” Chopra said.

The Indian capital’s hectic transport system slipped into chaos, with traffic light failures triggering snarls and lengthy tailbacks, while its metro trains, which carry around two million passengers daily, ground to a halt.

Hundreds of inter-city goods and passenger trains were also left stranded.

“I had been waiting for a shipment of stock to arrive since morning and now I’m told it will be delayed indefinitely,” furious Delhi businessman Anshul Aggarwal said.

“The stock was coming on a goods train which is now stuck in the middle of nowhere,” Aggarwal said.

Smriti Mehra, a teller in a Bank of India branch in the capital, said the latest outage had caused total confusion.

“Our main server is down. We have had to send back so many of our customers. There is no Internet, nothing is working,” Mehra said.

“It is a total breakdown of everything in our office,” she added.

Radhakrishan Iyer, a chartered accountant, was livid he would have to work overtime in the next couple of days because of the tax accounting work that had been piling up in his office.

“This is the time of the year when there is a peak rush to file income tax returns. My clients are complaining over the delay but there is not much that we can do as all our work is done online,” he said.

While the situation fuelled frustration in Delhi, it threatened to have more deadly consequences in the eastern state of West Bengal, where hundreds of miners were trapped underground when their lifts broke down.

In the Rajasthani state capital of Jaipur, renowned internationally as an artisanal jewelry center, gem cutters and polishers were forced to put down their tools.

“We have almost 200,000 workers engaged in the trade and most of them operate from their houses. They don’t have power back up, so it’s obviously a major problem,” Vivek Kala, former president of Jaipur Jewellers Association said.

Limited power cuts are almost a daily occurrence in much of India.

For businesses and households that can afford them, the only backup comes from power inverters that can keep basic electrics such as lights and fans working, or expensive diesel-guzzling generators.

“Inverters don’t last long and running a generator is costly,” said Jaidev Singh, 65, the owner of a stationery shop in Delhi.

“The generator makes so much noise and there is so much smoke. Customers want to shop in a relaxed atmosphere, this is not what they want when they come out,” Singh said.

Vivek Pandit, an energy expert at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said it was still too early to put a figure on the financial cost of the two successive outages.

“The particular problem with the second blackout is that it’s slap-bang in the middle of the day, so there will probably be a significant economic fallout,” Pandit said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 01, 2012, on page 10.

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