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Letter from India: An energy crisis from a starry night to a Delhi bazaar

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 14, 2012 - Traveling by rickshaw, train, bus and another rickshaw, I arrived at the small village in Andhra Pradesh, India, to observe a festival for the planting season. Far from the paved road, the village sat against a hill overlooking the surrounding rice paddies, green and quiet at dusk.

At night, the landscape melted into darkness and I could see more stars than I ever had in my life. Beautiful, of course, but my view of the stars was greatly aided by the lack of ambient light from the village. Practically no house had access to electricity, and the rutted main roads had no streetlights that might use up valuable power, a reminder of the challenges facing India’s energy system.

Roughly 300 million to 400 million people in India have no access to electricity. The other 800 million must deal with scheduled power cuts and spotty access at best. At worst, they face unpredictable, indefinite black outs (and hot, fan-less nights). The Indian central government’s initiative to deliver electrical access to the entire country, “Power for All,” was originally to achieve its goal by 2012. However, the power grid has encountered many obstacles and is only meeting 64 percent of India’s needs.

Energy development projects are springing up across the country in an effort to meet demand. While the state-run power company, the National Thermal Power Corp. (NTPC), has built dozens of power plants in recent years, private businesses have expanded rapidly in the power generation sector to contribute to the national electricity grid.

Many energy-intensive industries simply build captive power plants on the sites of their factories to guarantee their own supply of electricity. According to one report, “60 percent of Indian firms rely on captive or back-up generation.”

Efforts to rapidly increase the country’s power capacity have not come without conflict. In some of the most heavily industrializing regions of the country, communities have begun to oppose big-power projects because they do not want to lose their land and access to water resources, and because they feel they have no voice in the development process. Community dissatisfaction has led to riots and protests at several public hearings recently.

According to Indian law, communities have a special role to play in these development projects through formal public meetings. Many power companies face allegations of manipulating the public record, coercing participants or finding ways to prevent these public meetings from ever convening.

In contrast to the village in Andhra Pradesh, energy conflict takes a different form in Delhi, India’s largest metropolis. Chandni Chowk, a bazaar dating back to 1650 A.D., sits at its heart and is a swarming, hustling mass of people, animals, machines and vehicles funneled through narrow alleys and cramped side streets.

Suspended above the chai stalls and metal soldering shops that spew showers of red sparks, thick knots of tangled wires hang like vines. These wires deliver stolen electricity to homes, shops and small factories. Families and businesses pay for illegal hook-ups to the power grid to siphon off enough electricity for their needs. Nationwide, power theft annually adds up to billions of dollars’ worth of losses.

Curious how so many people manage to steal electricity with impunity, on one visit to the bazaar I struck up a conversation with a repairman working near a street intersection. Bespectacled and wry, the repairman acknowledged that many people go to uncertified electricians to get an illegal hook-up. The best way, he noted, is to install a "meter stopper" inside the building that can prevent the utility company from monitoring how much energy is used.

Looking over the tops of his glasses with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “I’m not saying you should or shouldn’t do this, it’s just what I hear works best.” But if you use the illegal wire hook-up and someone from the utility comes around for inspections, a bribe of a couple hundred rupees (about $4) should suffice.

The outcome of India’s race for energy will have global implications. Expanding electrical access, spurring industrialization while respecting democratic practices, cutting down on power theft – these are the immense challenges that face one of the world’s emerging powers. In the meantime, India and Indians seek ways through and around these energy hurdles to answer their more immediate needs.

Back in the rural farming village in Andhra Pradesh on that star-filled night, the villagers decided they would show a movie for the first night of a festival. Lacking a proper movie theater, they had turned to other, more practical options: a young man wheeled up his motorcycle to provide portable power; another villager emerged from his home with a motor belt and a projector; and others hoisted a white sheet into place. Soon, a 1970s Bollywood movie danced, fought and sang across the white sheet while the motorcycle belched exhaust and provided a roaring, chugging soundtrack in the background.

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