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Power Back On, But India's Outlook A Bit More Dim


Now we'd like to take closer look at how losing power can grind a country to a halt. This week, India has been dealing with what is being called the world's worst blackout. Major power outages this week left well over 600 million people in the dark. Coal miners were trapped. Hospitals struggled with backup generators, and transportation was a mess, which had this man complaining to Al Jazeera International.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm waiting for the last one hour for the metro. And it is a story being repeated. Yesterday, there was a major breakdown. Again today, there's a major breakdown. There's nobody to give an explanation.

MARTIN: Officials are now reporting that power has mostly been restored, but the outages have been a significant blow to a country which is increasingly asserting itself an economic and technological powerhouse. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called on Anand Giridharadas. He's a columnist for the New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. He's the author of "India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking."

Anand, thanks so much for joining us once again.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Great to be back with you.

MARTIN: Now, I think a lot of people who've travelled to India, who have experienced, you know, power outages or kind of rolling blackouts, somewhat, you know, frequently because of an aging grid, a demand for power that outweighs supply. I mean, we have that in U.S. cities. But the collapse of an entire grid, what does this say?

GIRIDHARADAS: This is a very serious puncture in the narrative that has been told about India, and that Indians have been telling themselves for the last many years, which is essentially the narrative that growth, growth, growth can propel India to the ranks of the great superpowers and solve all of its problems.

And there has been growth, growth, growth. And what there has not been at that same time is a development of the public systems that people share, the trains, the airports, the power grid, the roads, the things that coordinate a billion ambitious, dynamic people. And that's been building for a while, and this is just the most powerful symbol of actually something which is very commonplace in India, which is private needs and consumption and dynamism far outstripping the capacity of the commons to supply it.

MARTIN: Why is that?

GIRIDHARADAS: These public systems, like the power grid, tend to be inadequate because the people with the money and power to make them better tend to be insulated from the serious deficiencies of public space in India. So they don't worry about water treatment plants because they drink Bisleri or Aquafina bottled water, and increasingly Evian. They don't worry about the police because they have their own security guards.

So the wealthy and the connected are not concerned about things like power grids. People have their own huge batteries that suck up power for outages. They have their own diesel generators. And until the powerful are part of the system like everybody else, it's going to be very little pressure to change it.

MARTIN: It sounds to me like you're saying this is not an economics problem. This is a governance problem. I mean...

GIRIDHARADAS: Absolutely. It's...

MARTIN: Is there - there's...

GIRIDHARADAS: This is fundamentally political.

MARTIN: There's no mechanism by which common needs are addressed through the political system?

GIRIDHARADAS: Well, there is. I mean, people vote. And in India, it's actually the poor who tend to vote more reliably than the rich.

MARTIN: If the poor are more likely to vote than the rich - which is the opposite of the way it is in this country, I think, as most people know, particularly in off-year elections - why is it that they are not able to use their political power to compel improvements in infrastructure and other common needs?

GIRIDHARADAS: What you're asking is the most vital and the most maddening question about modern India. I don't think anyone has an answer for you. Why is it that you still have extraordinary levels of malnutrition some 65 years after independence? In a country where most poor people vote, why can't they pursue policies that help them?

Well, there's a lot of reasons, from corruption - so they vote for governments that then pledge to do things, and then either don't do them or get kind of the moneyed interests, bribe them to not do the thing they said that they were going to do. But you also have a highly ineffective state mechanism. So even things that politicians want to do in theory, by the time they actually become implemented at the policy level, the message, it's like a game of telephone. I mean, the message is totally distorted by the time it reaches the end.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Anand Giridharadas, author of "India Calling." It's a book about the incredible growth in India's economy over the last few years. We're talking about that massive power outage in India.

You were thinking that there might be some good that could come out of this. Can you tell us about that?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think if you look at the period from 1947, when independence was won, to the early 1990s, the driving impulse of the country was to build public systems, public goods. It was a socialist period. And in that time, they totally underplayed the importance of the market, and there was really no place for free enterprise.

In the early '90s, it flipped. And basically, from then until now, it's been the opposite: total market reign, the interests of capital kind of supersede everything else right now - with a little bit of sops to the poor to stay quiet, but a real free-market system.

And I think part of what's been happening over the last couple of years with this huge anticorruption movement and then now this enormous electricity failure is perhaps the kind of unraveling of this free-market-only period. And what we might be entering is maybe more of a hybrid period, where people say, you know what? We need to keep the market, because it's what's gotten us out of a certain condition of poverty. But we need to now bring back some of the nation-building, public systems-building impulse that dominated earlier in the years after independence.

MARTIN: Anand, I know you just came back to the states full-time a couple of months ago, so this may be beyond the scope of your expertise. But you remember that there were significant power outages on the East Coast just a couple of weeks ago. And, you know, there was outrage, you know, about this. I mean, in the Washington, D.C. area, the power was out for some people for days in the middle of a sort of 95-degree heat wave. Still, people kind of debating and arguing about why this happened.

I have to ask you whether you think that there might be - and obviously, in that instance, there was a significant weather event that was part of it, you know, high winds and so forth. But is there a cautionary tale for the U.S.?

GIRIDHARADAS: I think there is. But let me point out one important difference. My parents were without power in Washington for nearly a week, and it was disastrous. But here's one important difference: There are a lot of powerful people in Washington. There are a lot of rich people in Washington. The majority of the 10 richest counties in the world are around the Washington area.

However, how many people were able to buy themselves out of that failure by generating their own power? How many of them - how many of the most wealthy powerful people there weren't dependent on the public system? They all were. They were all in it together, which creates at least some pressure to change it.

MARTIN: Anand Giridharadas is a columnist for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. He's the author of "India Calling." And he was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Anand, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.