I read (skim is more accurate) four newspapers a day. I know. Old school, right? These papers are my first-line source for news. They include Times of India, Mumbai Mirror, Bombay Times (more gossip than news), and नाव भारत टाइमस (Nav Bharat Times, my Hindi practice paper). All delivered to my doorstep in a bundle. I supplement these papers with online news from MSNBC and NDTV. And, then, of course, there is the world’s most reliable source of information: Facebook.
Facebook is how I learned of the world’s biggest power outage this week. From my niece’s Facebook status. She tagged me to ask if all was OK. That’s right. My niece in South Carolina knew about the power outage in India before I did. That is how this 24/7 news cycle works. That is how small our world is in the digital age. That is why I really need to start watching the evening news.
Watching the spin around this story is fascinating. These headlines appeared on Wednesday, the day after the blackout:
- Times of India: As 680M Indians In 22 States Reel Under World’s Biggest-Ever Blackout, Minister Gets Promotion
- Mumbai Mirror: DARK AGE 60 crore hit as power snaps in 19 states (PAGE 12)
- Nav Bharat Times (translated): world’s biggest blackout, three grids fail, in 24 regions electricity vanishes, 60 crore people affected
I really don’t know what is up with the Mumbai Mirror. Either the Mirror has a really early print deadline, or it has missed out on the biggest news story of the week. Even though the editors made room for the headline on page 1, the story is relegated to page 12, in the Nation section. I guess because Mumbai was unaffected. On the front page, the Mirror chose to run an article about a brother and sister killed by pesticides.
Notice anything about the headlines? Even the basic facts about the story are up for debate. No one can even agree on how many people or states were affected by the outage. Interestingly, in an inside story in the Times, the numbers change from 22 states to 21. More interesting, though, is the “truth” about the numbers affected by the blackout. In an article titled, “33% of India’s homes still in dark age,” it is reported that while 68 crore people live in the blackout region, “more than half would scarcely have been able to tell the difference.” India has the largest population without access to electricity in the world. Ironically, the vast majority of those people live in the states affected by the blackout.
Yet, somehow, the ministers are passing the blame to people in the affected regions. That is the latest spin today. Or was it the monsoon season’s negative impact on hydroelectric production? Either way, it is not the fault of the guy in charge of the power grid.
The power failure sheds light on how much India’s infrastructure is standing in the way of its own progress. How is India supposed to move forward to become a greater economic superpower than China when such a large percentage of its population is left behind, literally, in the dark age? India has tremendous potential, but reliable power is a critical part of the infrastructure needed to assure foreign investors that India can deliver its goods and services on budget and on time.
So, let me tell you about my first visit to Mumbai last year. The first day I was here, the power was out in my potential apartment for two hours. I thought, “Welcome to India.” When I met with another ex-pat wife, she told me that the complex regularly has blackouts. Those kinds of blackouts don’t happen in the US. Despite what the newly promoted Indian home minister thinks, I can tell you that it does not normally take four days to restore power in the US; it takes about four minutes. The fault at Agra was the type that we would hardly have noticed in the US. When it takes days to restore power, it is because Mother Nature, not a technical fault, has caused the outage. Sure, It took two weeks for TXU to restore our power after Hurricane Ike, but that was a major hurricane.
As I sit here writing about the challenges of access to electricity, I am reading Facebook feeds in the US about a comment made by the CEO of a company that sells chicken that has set off a vitriolic debate about free speech, religion, and sex. It is fantastic that those debates can happen in the US. In some parts of the world, they can’t. I pray that when the dust settles, everyone remembers that these debates are really high-class problems. Problems that people with electricity can think about and argue about, but that, in the final analysis, in the grand scheme of all things great and small on this earth, don’t amount to a hill of beans or a chicken sandwich.
And, now that I have thoroughly mixed my metaphors and pop culture references, broken every rule of good writing that I learned on Facebook last week, and jumped off my soap box, here’s a little Springsteen for you: