The rising superpower is running out of power

March 19, 1997|By Andrew Robinson

NEW DELHI -- The topic is ''virtual communities,'' the speaker a Silicon Graphics rep, the setting a ''CyberCity'' exhibition. A slick multi-media presentation and a large-screen video projection of the speaker flank the platform. The whole scene is brightly illuminated by an overhead chandelier. In the audience, hundreds of corporate delegates and local journalists hang on every word.

You might think this country of 900 million was truly on the brink of the Information Age. But without a special back-up generator, there might be no CyberCity exhibition at all. Because India, which Bill Gates calls the next ''Software Superpower,'' is running short of the one thing that makes electronic data communications possible -- electricity.

Power outages have long been a fact of life in India, and candles, re-chargeable lamps, power converters and generators are as much a part of urban Indian homes as the vacuum cleaner in the U.S.

The real cause for alarm is that in this ''developing'' country, supposedly rising from Third World mendicancy into the more respectable realm of free-market consumership, the power situation is getting worse. ''It is a great achievement that since independence our power generation has risen from 1,700 megawatts to over 80,000 megawatts,'' says V. Gopalacharienu Gopalachari, India's Minister of Power. ''But we didn't expect such an increase in demand -- we were focusing all our energies on generation, not consumption and distribution. That is why the power situation in the country has been getting worse day by day.''

Here in Delhi, summer has not yet started. The ceiling fans, air conditioners, even many refrigerators are in deep hibernation. Still the city is drawing far more electricity than it can afford. Six-hour cuts are an everyday occurrence in this megalopolis of 11 million, and the Central Electricity Authority threatens to cut the power supply indefinitely if Delhi does not pay its electricity dues soon.

The problem is hardly confined to Delhi. ''It's funny that people complain about the situation in Delhi,'' says Alok Brara, editor-in-chief of PowerLine magazine, an industry trade publication. ''Most people in India would be happy with 16 hours of electricity per day. There are many towns that get one or two hours a day -- sometimes they don't get power for weeks.''

Even in Bangalore, the ''Silicon Valley of South Asia,'' power outages last eight to ten hours per day. Last April, industrial consumers in the Ernakulam district of Kerala, India's most socially and economically prosperous state, were without bTC electricity for nearly three weeks. As a result, many industries were forced to lay off workers, riots broke out and people threatened to burn substations. Electricity cuts have sparked violent outbursts in small towns throughout the country.

Experts explain the crisis in a variety of ways -- government mismanagement, corruption, politicized distribution of state-controlled power, excessive subsidies for farmers, reluctance to privatize, an unworkable billing system.

And theft. ''I wanted to pay for my electricity connection,'' says Harbans Singh, who owns a shop in Delhi's crowded Sadar Bazaar market. Like many shop owners, Mr. Singh (not his real name) draws power through a wire illegally connected to a nearby electric pole. ''But after I sent in the application and paid the initial fee, the electricity people demanded bribes before they would install the connection. It was cheaper and easier for me to connect illegally and pay off the police.''

India appears to be mired in a typical developing-country conundrum. For every one percent rise in GNP, the government estimates, demand for electricity goes up by 1.6 percent. In effect, the very effort to modernize, to be appealing in the global environment -- installing more computer networks, illuminating chandeliers at convention centers, building more air-conditioned offices and hotels to court foreign investors -- is depleting India's ability to generate enough electricity for its citizens.

Such dilemmas have become more common since India inaugurated economic liberalization in 1991. As a country with more than 300 million consumers, India represents a vast, untapped market. But as a country emerging after nearly half a century of economic isolation, its markets are also quite impressionable -- their demands as easily created as filled.

So there is general pride in the opening of a McDonald's restaurant, or the arrival of the Ford Escort on Delhi's streets -- so jammed with cars that 40 percent of the city's children suffer from asthma largely attributable to vehicular emissions -- or a CyberCity exhibition.

An even greater anomaly is the fact that people in India -- where saving money, food, water, electricity, plastic containers, anything of the slightest value is virtually a part of the culture -- are now being encouraged to consume more.

''Yes, the older generation will say the standard of living was better 50 years ago,'' says Mr. Brara. ''But they didn't have as many demands back then either.''

And that may be the most remarkable aspect of India's development as it begins to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its independence this August -- a dramatic shift from a society of complacent civil servants to a society of ambitious consumers. Whatever this portends, the current government under Prime Minister Deve Gowda seems disinclined to reverse it, no matter how much it strains the country's supply of such things as water, oil and electricity. And given the current global economic environment, the government may have no choice but to illuminate the possibilities of foreign investment, even if it means leaving the reality of Indian life in the dark.

Andrew Robinson is a writer who has lived in India and Bangladesh for the last five years. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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