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Power Outage Exposes India-China Contrasts


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. India's massive power outages last week - the biggest in world history - left 600 million without electricity. It also shocked those that thought India was on course to become a new economic superpower like China. The Indian power cuts exposed an inadequate, outdated infrastructure that had suffered from prolonged underinvestment, yet, on the day the lights went out, India's minister of power was promoted into a new job. In China, such outages are all but unheard of, and in case where embarrassing failures are exposed, the politicians responsible generally face harsher treatment than promotion. NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi and Frank Langfitt in Shanghai join us to discuss the different attitudes toward infrastructure in two of the world's major merging economies. Julie, first, please take us through what we know about what actually happened on Monday and Tuesday.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Well, 21 out of India's 28 states were hit by power cuts, along with the capital, New Delhi. Three of the country's five electricity grids failed at lunchtime around Monday, then again on Tuesday, affecting essentially a population twice the size of the United States. And it ran from an arc starting in Kashmir in the north to the states on the eastern border. It's not yet clear, Linda, what caused the collapse of the power. But with the monsoons being weak this year, it's hotter, it's dryer than usual. And what that does, it drives up the consumption of energy. The rich, for example, use more air conditioning, and the poor, they rely more on their bored wells that operate with electrical motors to get water out of the ground. One leading theory is that in order to keep their constituents happy - say, big agriculture, for example - political leaders of some states drew more than their share, throwing the entire system out of balance and leading to the collapse. Now, this is all under investigation.

WERTHEIMER: So, do you think these incidents tell us something about the electricity supply system in India?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think it tells us an enormous amount. Chiefly, I think it reveals, as you stated in the intro, that India's dream of becoming an economic superpower is at risk of fading. It's widely believed by energy experts that unless India fixes its current antiquated infrastructure, as you mentioned, generates more power more efficiently, that dream of being on par with China will wither. India is producing a fraction of the power that China is producing - by a magnitude of four times China is outpacing India. The coal sector, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of India's energy, is a state monopoly, and it's creaky and it's systematically in decline. It's hungry for investment. Its pricing discourages private investors. The states run up these huge deficits because they want to provide cheap energy. And then there's this huge issue of theft. Twenty percent of the energy isn't paid for here. And so you've got this creaking infrastructure, you got railways that carry the coal that are prone to delays, the roads are a mess. And, Linda, 300 million people here - 300 million - do not even have electricity.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Frank, why is it that something like this has not happened in China. Power outages of this size just don't seem to happen there.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, I mean, exactly what Julie is saying, it's night and day. I've been to India and I was shocked when I visited in terms of the roads and the infrastructure. Here, you know, what China really does well is infrastructure, and they do have problems occasionally. But, you know, as Julie was saying, the electricity infrastructure here is five times more efficient than India's. Almost everybody in the countryside has electricity. I can think 15 years ago, they had karaoke machines, you know, in these little village towns and little houses. The other thing here is the expectations are really different. If you look at Shanghai and Beijing, much of these cities are really very first world. In the time that I've lived in Shanghai and Beijing, seven years total, I've never experienced a blackout. That's better than I can say for the time I lived in Washington, D.C.

WERTHEIMER: I was going to say, yes.

LANGFITT: Yeah, I mean, and people here also, if they had this kind of blackout, they would be furious, because they expect more of the government. And the government here, you know, they're unelected, they have no legitimacy really beyond their economic management. So, if they start letting infrastructure fail repeatedly, you know, there's the chance that that would threaten their rule.

WERTHEIMER: But still, a lot of people consider China to be a developing country, and power outages are commonplace in developing countries. China has just missed that part of being a developing country.

LANGFITT: Well, they developed the last 20 years. And I've now either lived or covered this country for 15 years. When I used to come here in the '90s, to get around the roads weren't very good. Now, the highways are as good or better than many of the highways you would see in the United States. Getting around the country is very easy. I now move around, and I do reporting trips, Linda, on high-speed rail trains that don't cost me very much to ride on, and they're really, really terrific until the time that they do crash. And so I do want to say one thing about Chinese infrastructure; while it's often praised, it does have corruption problems. Things do crop up. It was only a week or so ago that there was a big rain storm in Beijing. The drainage system didn't work. More than 70 people died. People in Beijing were up in arms. So, the Chinese is not perfect, but compared to most developing countries, it's extremely good.

WERTHEIMER: Julie, do you see India catching up, sort of closing the gap between itself and China as far as these power supply questions are concerned?

MCCARTHY: While it's intriguing to talk about the comparisons between China and India, it needs to be said that the decision making in China is extremely hierarchal. And you step out of line and you're out. The decision making here is messy. It's democratic. It takes a long time. It's subject to all kinds of compromises. And a lot of times, it ends up serving not the national interest but state and regional interests.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's correspondents Julie McCarthy in New Delhi and Frank Langfitt in Shanghai. Thank you both very much for joining us.

MCCARTHY: You're welcome, Linda.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.