India power outage plunges 370 million into sweltering darkness

An Indian passenger sits as others sleep inside a stationary train during a power outage that struck in the early morning hours, July 30, 2012 at a station in New Delhi, India. AP

Updated 2:00 p.m. EST

(CBS/AP) NEW DELHI - The power grid across northern India failed Monday, leaving 370 million people sweating in the heat in one of the worst blackouts in a decade, highlighting the country's inability to feed a growing hunger for energy.

Hundreds of trains were halted, and hospitals and airports were forced to use backup generators to perform basic functions.

New Delhi's prestigious Metro, which has 1.8 million daily riders, was among rail services that went down when the country's northern grid crashed about 2:30 a.m. because it could no longer keep up with the huge demand for power in the hot summer, officials in the state of Uttar Pradesh said. But, Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said he was not sure exactly what caused the collapse and had formed a committee to investigate it. Residents woke from sleep when their fans and air conditioners stopped, came out of their homes in New Delhi's sweltering heat as the entire city turned dark. Temperatures at that time were in the mid-90 degrees F with 89 percent humidity.

"This will obviously get worse," said Subhash Chawla, a 65-year-old retiree who took the Metro once power was restored. "Unless the Metro has a separate power supply, it will be chaos in the future."

The affected areas include the nation's breadbasket in Punjab, the war-wracked region of Kashmir, the burgeoning capital of New Delhi, the Dalai Lama's Himalayan headquarters in Dharmsala and the world's most populous state, the poverty stricken Uttar Pradesh. By late morning, 60 percent of the power had been restored in the eight northern states affected by the outage, Shinde said. He said he expected the rest to be back to normal by late afternoon. Currently, the grid is borrowing power from neighboring eastern and western grids as well as getting hydroelectric power from the small neighboring mountain kingdom of Bhutan.

CBS News' Sanjay Jha reports that at the peak of the outage, Delhi's ever-congested roads turned to complete gridlock in places Monday morning as traffic lights went dark. Police tried to man some of the busier intersections in the sprawling city.

Shinde announced that the government was setting up a three-member panel to look into the failure of northern power grid.

It was the first time since 2001 that the northern grid had collapsed. But India's demand for electricity has soared since then as its economy has grown sharply, and the outage was a reminder of the country's long road ahead in upgrading its infrastructure to meet its aspirations of being an economic superpower.

In addition, a weak monsoon has kept temperatures higher this year, further increasing electricity usage as people seek to cool off. Shivpal Singh Yadav, the power minister in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people, said that while demand during peak hours hits 11,000 megawatts, the state can only provide 9,000 megawatts.

The grid collapsed because some states apparently drew more power than they were authorized to take to meet the summer demand, Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation chief Avnish Awasthi said.

Blackouts are a frequent occurrence in many Indian cities because of a shortage of power and an antiquated electricity grid. At the same time, tens of millions of people living in villages in northern India, about one-third of the population, have no access to the electricity grid at all. However, this was the first time that the entire northern grid had collapsed.

The power deficit was worsened by a weak monsoon that lowered hydroelectric generation and kept temperatures higher, further increasing electricity usage as people seek to cool off. Shivpal Singh Yadav, the power minister in the state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 200 million people, said that while demand during peak hours hits 11,000 megawatts, the state can only provide 9,000 megawatts. India's Central Electricity Authority reports power deficits of about 8 percent in recent months, but transmission and distribution losses in some states are as much as 50 percent because of theft and connivance of employees in the power industry.

Earlier this month, angry crowds blocked traffic and clashed with police after blackouts in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon that houses many high-rise apartment blocks and offices. With no power in some neighborhoods for more than 24 hours, people erected blockades that paralyzed traffic for several hours.

Transmission and distribution losses in some states are as much as 50 percent because of theft and connivance of employees in the power industry.

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