When twin power outages knocked out power to more than 670 million people in northern India early this week, officials were quick to blame a chronic energy gap that hobbles the fast-growing economy.
Energy analysts see India as a powerhouse market for coal and natural gas with power use slated to continue on its steep upward trajectory as the middle class plugs in air conditioners and starts up newly made cars and gadgets.
But this week's blackout points to deep-rooted problems that a long series of government programs and reforms has failed to address. It raises the question of whether that market will materialize or whether it will run aground against the familiar obstacles of overwhelming development challenges and political pandering.
"There are a number of different problems going on here right now," said Charles Ebinger, a researcher with the Brookings Institution specializing in global energy markets. "The system has been at a brittle edge for many, many years. ... Obviously one or more of these events have catapulted it into chaos."
On the face of it, India is well-endowed with energy resources. It has the fifth-largest estimated coal reserves in the world, and newly identified shale gas reserves could allow for significant domestic production.
But both are locked away in hard-to-access, remote terrain and are ill-served by the poor road and rail infrastructure.
In the gas sector, the find of what was thought to be a giant gas field in the Krishna Godavari Basin 10 years ago has not turned into the bonanza that boosters had hoped, either.
Vikram Mehta, chairman of the Shell group of companies in India, in a talk last fall at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that underinvestment in infrastructure has hindered the industry's growth.
"Natural gas is the bridge fuel between our present position and our hoped-for future situation when renewables become a more dominant part of the energy basket," he said. "The reason why natural gas has not acquired a more dominant position is because of the absence of pipelines and also because we have not invested perhaps enough in [liquefied natural gas] port terminals."
The slow growth of coal and gas supplies means that even as the electricity sector gradually expands, it falls behind. One of the world's fastest-growing economies, India's expansion has been fueled with the help of growing coal, oil and gas imports.
Politics, as usual
Fighting with those supply-side problems are even bigger demand-side issues.
"One of the problems in the gas sector, which is an endemic problem in the power sector, is that the price is heavily controlled," Ebinger said.
The agriculture sector, which accounts for 18 percent of gross domestic product but 50 percent of employment, is the biggest beneficiary. It receives free and heavily subsidized electricity and a prioritization of natural gas to make fertilizer. Other sectors, including transportation and manufacturing, get curtailed in their power use, he said -- sometimes at very short notice.
Until the use of electricity as a political giveaway is resolved, the power problems won't go away, says Persis Khambatta, a fellow in U.S.-India policy studies at CSIS. "Not only are these people getting power for free, but there's no sort of discipline that is encouraged among the users as well, like you shouldn't use this all the time ... which just creates far too much demand for the system to keep up with," she said.
Khambatta said the northern state of Gujurat stands out as an exception. There, electricity billing has been rationalized so that everyone -- both manufacturers and poor farmers -- pays for what they use, she said. But in other states, voters have tended to stick with the politicians sending them free-power kickbacks.
The resulting policy is extremely expensive. The government buys domestic energy where it can, makes up the difference on pricey international markets and sells the resultant power below cost. "They cannot afford to continue this policy" or the rupee will collapse, Ebinger said.
Anatomy of two power failures
Indeed, thirsty farmers and short power supplies are the apparent causes of this week's power failures.
India is in the midst of a drought that has pushed farmers in the northern wheat-basket states to rely on electric-powered water pumps to irrigate their fields. Those pumps run particularly heavily during the eight hours per day when farms get their free power allotment.
Most states face chronic power shortages that they deal with through scheduled and unscheduled blackouts, cutting power off for some residents while supplying others. The system usually works -- more or less -- but Monday it did not.
According to V.S.K. Murthy Balijepalli, a graduate student at the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bombay who works closely with the Indian officials on the electricity grid, it appears that for some reason Monday night the power grid's frequency signaled that it was carrying excess supply.
Normally states are free to draw excess power at no charge in that event, and it seems that four heavily populated states in northern India tapped into the apparent oversupply at the same time. The massive surge in demand could not be met by the available power supply, Balijepalli said, and a fail-safe system to block the flows may not have worked.
The demand spike apparently tilted the northern grid out of balance. Operators of the interconnected western grid saw the sudden massive demand and, realizing they could not supply it, immediately disconnected, said Balijepalli. The resulting blackout hit 300 million people supplied by the northern grid.
On Tuesday afternoon, a second failure crashed across three separate grids -- the Northern, the North Eastern and the Eastern -- and took out power for half of India.
In that case, it appears that the Northern states again attempted to overdraw power from the grid.
At the same time, a problem in the Eastern Grid caused a line to trip, Balijepalli said, citing documents not yet released to the public.
The trip in the Eastern Grid likely resulted in a cascading blackout across the three separate grids in India and the word's largest blackout, he said.
Challenging the growth myth?
A full analysis of the problems in the grid that caused the blackouts could take up to a year, and it will undoubtedly yield a host of insights into the circumstances and underlying conditions that led to the two events. But observers say it is not too early to identify some basic causes.
Ebinger believes that this basic supply-demand tension threatens the scenario of strong Indian growth and its move into the top tier of world energy users.
Scenarios in which India becomes the second-largest gas importer behind China, for example, "only play out when you are able to get a government that is able to make meaningful [power sector] reforms and make them stick," he said.
So far, the political arena has been far too beset by corruption and political maneuvering to do that. "My own feeling is, unless you can bring in a very bold reformer who can somehow bring together a coalition that will support reforms," the economic growth will sink, he said.