IN THE LAST TWO DAYS OF JULY, the façade fractured. When the electricity inexplicably cut out across 22 Indian states on Blackout Monday, nearly 700 million Indians were left in the dark. It was the largest power outage in world history. Even the throttling noise of generators starting up couldn’t drown out the embarrassment Indians felt as they read the headlines: “Superpower India, RIP” in The Economic Times and “Powerless and Clueless” in TheTimes of India. As much as the media covered the power outage and who was to blame, publications as prominent as The New York Times and Wall Street Journal also stressed a simple fact that normally doesn’t make the news. Even when electricity generation here is in full operation, a third of India’s population has no access to what has become a basic resource in the developed world. By contrast, India’s sprawling Asian neighbour, China, has 99 percent electricity coverage. By Wednesday, India’s power, if not pride restored, the American satirical publication, The Onion, jokingly quoted the Union minister of power saying, “Since restoring our infrastructure to 100 percent capacity following Monday and Tuesday’s blackouts, vast swaths of India are now completely without access to electricity.”
Like America’s Katrina or Japan’s Fukushima, India’s blackout laid bare the fissures in the nation’s foundation. There is the India of BRIC prestige, shining and rising; and then there is Bharat, the other India, which contains the majority of the nation’s population. It exists in rural outposts, as well as in the alleyways of major cities. Though breaks in electric supply are altogether common, the widespread blackout seemed a more dramatic reminder about those who live in an electricity-less Bharat every day and night. In this land, less than half the population has toilets. Three-quarters of households cook over an open fire. Nearly a million citizens, rural and urban, die each year from drinking contaminated water or breathing polluted air. The generators that thrummed across India sheltered some inhabitants from the genuine experience of Bharat, but that other India never ceases to exist.
And one can only stay sheltered for so long. The blackout provided a double revelation. First, it served as a reminder that India’s infrastructure is completely out of sync with the demands being placed upon it by a growing population. In every realm—food production and security, energy generation and distribution, water purification and availability, human wellbeing and physical health—there is a grave imbalance between what is available and what is needed.