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Generators Power Through India's Blackouts


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

The blackout that recently disrupted electricity across northern India is said to have affected more people than any previous power outage ever. It covered an area that's home to some 670 million people; that would be roughly 10 percent of the world's population. Still, large numbers of Indians living in the blackout zone barely noticed it happened. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy explains.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Go to any factory, small shop, and most homes in India and it won't take long to grasp the challenge Indians face. I hadn't sat down with Pankaj Gupta, the owner of a small glass factory, more than five minutes before the inevitable struck.

PANKAJ GUPTA: (Foreign language spoken) Wait a minute.

MCCARTHY: The power has just gone out on you here?


MCCARTHY: So what happens to the factory here? It seems to have come back on.

GUPTA: Small fluctuation.

MCCARTHY: Oh, small fluctuation. OK. How many of those do you get in a day?

GUPTA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Mr. Gupta is describing what he says is a very weird system. He says sometimes we have no power cuts, other times we have them twice a day, sometimes four times a day, sometimes five times a day, and he says at times there's just no power at all.

What's the summer been like for you?

GUPTA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: You're shaking your head.

GUPTA: Very bad, very bad. The situation was very bad.


MCCARTHY: Gupta maneuvers his wide girth around the passages of his small factory, where workers are bent over electric tools, smoothing rough tiles and breathing in a mist of glassy dust. Gupta says with the state electricity so unreliable, he, like many businesses in this industrial town of Noida, long ago resorted to India's humble diesel-run workhorse - the generator, ubiquitous as stray dogs in Delhi.

In a gritty district of town, where the monsoons carve muddy rivulets in narrow streets, shipping container-size generators are being packaged for sale at the Jakson Kirloskar factory, one of India's top three generator manufacturers, according to CEO Yashpal Sahnan. He says demand has never been higher and that his company, worth $10 million 10 years ago, is worth $72 million today.

YASHPAL SAHNAN: In 2002, also we have this plant only and now we have three plants.

MCCARTHY: Sahnan says his business is so brisk because the state supply of energy is so weak, with mismanaged coal mines, legal disputes over land rights that hold up energy projects for years, and a frosty climate for foreign firms that has suppressed exploration for new sources of energy.

So in offices, wealthy apartment blocks, hospitals and malls across the north of the country, generators drone like a thousand hives. They sputter noise and pollution. But the power they supply did make India's record-setting blackout merely bothersome rather than catastrophic. This elephantine generator, the size of a small house, is tucked in the bowels of a high-end mall in Delhi.


MCCARTHY: Upstairs with a mini McDonalds, sunglass stores and a body shop, this could be a mall anywhere in the United States. Except for the elaborate power back-up that mall vice president Benu Sehgal says brings the energy bill for the cinemas and 200 shops to nearly a quarter of a million dollars a month - 40 percent of the mall's costs. But Sehgal says without layers of expensive privately-produced energy...

BENU SEHGAL: You're dead. You have to have power back-ups. You're dead. Because how would you operate? Ten times during the day sometimes the power goes on, off. And what if you have a jewelry store? And puff, the power goes off - you're gone.


MCCARTHY: The customers cocooned in the mall's cool walls ricocheting with the strains of Adele are part of India's growing middle class that increasingly demands seamless energy. In fact, Amit Sinha, an analyst with the Bain Group, says Indians spends $8 billion a year on diesel to run generators. That's three times, he says, what it would cost to produce the same amount of energy with state coal-generated power.

AMIT SINHA: So you'll say, hey, that's not right. And that's what we all believe. That's not right. As a country, it's not right. I don't want to pay for diesel-produced electricity when I can get coal or gas produced cheaper. So that's the problem we're trying to fix.

MCCARTHY: Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the Center for Science and Environment, says generators have brought relief to millions. But in a land where two-third of the people live on two dollars a day, many millions more are locked out of this expensive energy alternative. And 400 million Indians are not even connected to a state electricity grid.

Bhushan says energy has become another dimension in the gulf between India's haves and have-nots, and generators another form of gated community.

CHANDRA BHUSHAN: Where people can separate themselves from the rest of city or the community - who actually don't care weather there is electricity in the grid or not.

MCCARTHY: Without electricity a child cannot read at night, a mother endangers her health cooking with kerosene. And without equal access to electricity, Bhushan says India's poor will fall further behind.

BHUSHAN: It will have a huge impact on health, it'll have huge impact on education, on human development, on them being very productive.

MCCARTHY: Bhushan says whether India becomes a 21st century powerhouse, whether it continues to pull millions from poverty, all rests on its capacity to produce enough electricity for everyone.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.