India blackout leaves 300 million without power

NEW DELHI Mon Jul 30, 2012 5:29am EDT

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Grid failure left more than 300 million people without power in New Delhi and much of northern India on Monday in the worst blackout for more than a decade, highlighting chronic infrastructure woes holding back Asia's third-largest economy.

The lights in Delhi and seven states went out in the early hours and had not been restored by the morning rush-hour, leaving the capital's workers sweltering overnight, then stranded at metro stations in the morning as trains were cancelled.

Power shortages and a creaky road and rail network have weighed heavily on the country's efforts to industrialize. Faced with a slump in the economy, New Delhi recently scaled back a target to pump $1 trillion into infrastructure over the next five years.

Blackouts lasting up to eight hours a day are frequent in much of the country and have sparked angry protests on the industrial fringes of Delhi this summer, the hottest in years.

Chaos reigned on Delhi's always-hectic roads on Monday as stop lights failed and thousands of commuters abandoned the metro.

"I'm 45 minutes late for work. First, no power since 2 in the morning, then no water to take a shower and now the metro is delayed by 13 minutes after being stuck in traffic for half an hour," said 32-year-old Keshav Shah, who works in a multinational software company 30 km outside the capital.

"As if I wasn't dreading Monday enough, this had to happen."

Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde blamed the outage on an incident near Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal, without giving details. He said 60 percent of normal service had been restored by mid-morning and full power would be back in the afternoon.

Authorities made restoring services to hospitals and transport systems a priority. By midday electricity had returned to much of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, a state with more people than Brazil. Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir were also hit.

"When the northern grid failed, we started taking power from the eastern and western grids," Shinde told reporters. "We will take some power from Bhutan too."

India suffers a peak hour power deficit of about 12 percent. It has been made worse this year by a weak monsoon, driving demand from farmers pumping more water from wells.

The outage forced the shutdown of hydroelectric plants in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh and thermal power stations in the wheat belt of Punjab and Haryana. They were slowly restarting on Monday morning.

Officials at Delhi's international airport said flights were unaffected. Delhi's private power company, BSES (RLIN.NS), said northern India last not suffered such a major outage since 2001. (Additional reporting by Sanjeev Choudhary, Ketan Bondre, Anurag Kotoky, Arup Roychoudhury, Matthias Williams and Nandita Bose; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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