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Power cuts and a day in the life of South India

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 25, 2010 - The fan decelerates with an ominous, declining buzz. Air stops moving, and heat hangs over me in the darkness. Sweat forms on my forehead and the pillow sticks to my neck. Without the covering sound of the rickety fan whirring away overhead I can now hear the whine of approaching mosquitoes. It is the peak of summer in South India and sleep is unlikely in a suddenly sweltering and fan-less night.

Power outages are nothing new in India or in many other developing countries, and nearly 400 million people in India live without any electricity at all, according to the International Energy Agency. While residential demands on electricity only total half the amount used by the industrial sector, India still struggles to meet the growing energy needs of cities where the population expands every single day - cities like Hyderabad, the state capital of Andhra Pradesh in the southern half of the country and the sixth biggest city in India.

When a storm recently knocked out power in the city and municipal authorities could not restore electricity for more than seven hours, riots broke out. Residents even attacked an electrical substation office in frustration, forcing government officials to flee until the police could regain control. Then again, if city officials did not fix your electricity when the weather outside climbed to average highs of 102*F, as it does in Hyderabad in May, you might not be too happy either.

Nearly every political party in the country promises to deliver electricity to the nation's villages. In fact, the central government of India declared that there would be Power for All by 2012. Currently India has the capacity to produce about 150,000 megawatts while the Power for All by 2012 plan has a target of 200,000 MW. According to former Indian President Abdul Kalam, energy production will need to reach 400,000 MW by 2030 to keep up with the demands of a growing middleclass and a rising economy. With rising energy needs for the world's second most populous country, it is not hard to imagine future complications for climate change and environmental issues. (But, to keep perspective, keep in mind that at present the average American uses almost 15 times the amount of energy as the average Indian annually.)

So, naturally, when an American delegation made a trip several months ago to India's ministry of power in Delhi, I tagged along to observe the government office responsible for managing, expanding and often cutting the supply of energy to a population of 1.14 billion people.

Daily, state-mandated power-cuts necessary to prevent overloads to the distribution grid originate from a bustling office building in various states of repair. In the central monitoring room an enormous screen covering one wall showed the power production and usage of all the states in the country. Another visitor wondered aloud what would happen if one state used too much energy. "We notify the state government that they have one hour to drop their usage levels to the target threshold," replied the ministry officer. And if they do not meet the target threshold? "We cut them off."

Trying to understand the macro effects of summer demands on energy, though, can conceal a more pedestrian view of the situation. While I have not observed any energy riots, I have seen the effects of daily energy outages on routines in Visakhapatnam (another smaller city in the state of Andhra Pradesh), especially on people's efforts to endure the heat.

When the electricity disappears today without warning and all the desktop computers go dark in the NGO (non-governmental organization) where I work, my coworkers respond with less ferocity than the citizens of Hyderabad. Again, the ominous slowing of the overhead fan reminds me of the previous night, but now daylight and a faint breeze lift the mood.

Srinu, one of the senior staff, leans back in his chair with his fingers interlocked behind his head and smiles wryly at me. "Power cut, no work," he shrugs at me from across the room. Other coworkers, unable to work at their lifeless computers, stop by to chat. We all sweat in the muggy heat, but someone has a good joke in Telugu that Srinu translates to English for my benefit. Everyone laughs a second time at the joke in its English form.

We sweat some more before the computers click back on and the fan begins its deliberate warm up rotations with the restored energy. The other coworkers return to their spots in the office and the unofficial break ends at just under 45 minutes. We repeat this formula again after lunch during another outage.

In the afternoon everyone drinks chai, a mixture of equal parts tea, sugar and milk. (This is after everyone has consumed at least one midmorning chai and perhaps one before that with breakfast.) However, any advantage from the small dose of caffeine in the tea is erased by the warmth of the drink. After imprudently gulping down my cup of hot tea, the sweating begins once again, sapping away my energy.

At the chai stand I visit each morning, I notice the technique the old Indian men use to cool their first cup for the day. First they pour the chai out of the cup and onto the shallow saucer; this provides more surface area for the liquid to release heat. Then they raise the saucer to their face and slurp down the chai with total nonchalance as I stare in awe at their methods. In the end, though, no matter how one drinks their chai, everyone sweats.

Sometime in the afternoon another friend from work, Vinayak, and I escape the roasting confines of the office in search of a cold mango or papaya smoothie from one of the stalls across the street. But by the time we finish the smoothies and walk the short distance back to the office our shirts are dark with perspiration again.

Evening approaches, and some friends and I head for the only reliable haven from the temperatures: the movie theater. In spite of the state-mandated power outages, I have yet to hear of a cinema where electricity stoppages cut a movie short or left customers without the luxury of air conditioning. (Movie theaters typically have their own power generators.) My theory is that Bollywood movies are made to last a minimum of three hours to justify a prolonged stay in the air conditioned complex. Air vents blast an icy breeze onto moviegoers with such force that by the end credits the outdoor furnace lingers only as a distant memory.

By the time we leave the theater, nightfall has reduced the temperature to manageable levels. I am still cool from the air conditioned cinema when I flop onto my bed and begin to drift to sleep beneath the drone of the again-functioning fan. Andhra Pradesh must be within its state energy quota set by the ministry of power because the fan works the rest of the night. And while I contentedly consider the still whirling fan upon waking up, India and its ministries continue to pursue answers to questions about its energy needs for the future.

Nick Wertsch will be sending in occasional letters from India.