Dawn News

Super power failures

It was one of the worst power outages that left millions in the dark. The entire transport system was disrupted forcing buses, trains, and planes to come to a complete halt. Millions spent the night without power. Hundreds of thousands were stranded at the bus and train stations where they slept hoping that the system will restore soon. I saw it all firsthand in New York City on 14 August 2003.

But unlike the condescending and pejorative headlines that accompanied the recent power failure in India, media coverage of the 2003 power outage in the eight states in the US and Canada, which left 50-million people in the dark, was about peoples’ resilience and generosity. The commentary about India’s power failure, however, was focussed on questioning if India were ready to be a superpower.

The media coverage highlighted the deficiencies in infrastructure that caused “India’s darkest hour”. NPR in the US suggested that corruption may be the reason behind the massive power failure in India causing the “worst blackout in history.” Others contrasted India with China and praised the latter where such massive outages are not common. The USA Today quoted energy experts who advised that a similar failure was unlikely to occur in the US. "We are much, much less at risk for something like that happening here, especially from the perspective of demand exceeding supply," Professor Gregory Reed of the University of Pittsburgh told the newspaper.

This is not the first time that the western media had tried to question if India were ready for the big leagues. With every misstep, big or small, the western news media doubts, as NPR recently did, “about India's dream to become a superpower.”

Despite the reassurances from energy experts that a similar eventuality is unlikely to occur in the US, I am not so confident about the resilience of the power infrastructure in the West given the fact that while much has been invested in generating additional power, the same is not true for the investments in the inadequate power grid, which was instrumental in the massive power failure in August 2003.

Besides, such highly infrequent events are often without precedence and hence previous risk probabilities are either irrelevant or not known suggesting that we are dealing with unknown risks that are hard to mitigate. Consider Japan, which despite being a superpower and exposed to similar disasters in the past, learnt the lesson about unknown risks as it dealt with the massive loss of life (app. 18,000 dead) and extensive damage to nuclear power generation resulting from the tsunamiin March 2011.

It was a little after 4 pm on August 14, 2003, when the lights went off in Manhattan. I was at Columbia University when without notice the electricity disappeared from the campus. I tried to call my wife, who worked in downtown Manhattan, but failed to reach her. I called my mother-in-law in Toronto asking her to reach out to my wife and only then learnt that it was not just Manhattan, New York City or Toronto, but most of the North-East was without power.

Within minutes of the power outage, Manhattan came to a standstill. With traffic lights not functioning and the underground subway system disrupted, millions of commuters spilled out on the streets of New York not knowing how would they get back to their families. Children were stranded at daycare, patients were stuck at the hospitals without their rides back home. The loss of 62,000 megawatts had exposed 50-million North Americans to unprecedented hardships: no power, no transport, no elevators, no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no computers, no internet, and yes, no TV.

We lived in Brooklyn Heights and I was roughly 15-km away from home. I immediately purchased bottled water and batteries from a shop and started to walk the 15-km stretch. I reached home hours later in pitch darkness. As I walked from uptown Manhattan and passed by Penn Station (railway station), Union Square, and later at night crossed over the Brooklyn bridge, I saw hundreds of thousands stranded in the City where they had worked every day, but had not spent the night before. I saw men and women camped out at the train stations and parks lying on their backs using their jackets and handbags as pillows.

The next morning I accompanied my wife to her office in the Wall Street in downtown Manhattan where the streets and parks were still filled with people who were forced to sleep overnight in open. Realising that the all offices were closed on the Friday morning, we returned to Brooklyn. We encountered a disheveled man who asked us for a lift. He was a vice president at a leading financial institution who also spent the night on the street. He was very concerned about missing his heart medication, which was left at his home.

Superpower or otherwise, all human engineered systems are prone to failures caused by Black Swans. While we engineer infrastructure against failures, we only do so for known risks. For the unknown kind, we do not have factors of safety to incorporate in our engineering designs. Every natural or man-made disaster of unprecedented scale exposes our weakest links and failures in assumptions, design, and imagination.

The heat wave that struck Europe in August 2003 was another unprecedented, infrequent event. Conservative estimates suggest over 70,000 people dying as a direct result of infrastructure and planning failures in Europe. The French National Institute of Health and Medical Research estimated over 14,800 deaths of mostly elderly in France alone.

Two years later in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal cities in the United States, mostly Louisiana, killing over 1,800 people and causing property damage exceeding $108 billion. In fact, the actual death toll could be much higher because a year later funds ran out for the initiative to identify hundreds of missing persons. In Katrina’s case the failure risk of levees, which eventually failed, were already known. Little, however, was done to protect New Orleans, a city mostly populated by African Americans.  In fact, research later revealed that “African Americans were disproportionately represented among both elderly and non-elderly victims, and the vast majority of those still missing.”*

Unlike the power outage in July 1977, which left eight million without power and subjected to widespread looting in New York City, the 600-odd million Indians dealt with the catastrophic power failure with grace. Despite the chaos, violence and looting has not been reported, revealing that India may have a vulnerable physical infrastructure, its social infrastructure is indeed resilient.

* Sharkey, Patrick. Survival and Death in New Orleans: An Empirical Look at the Human Impact of Katrina. Journal Of Black Studies, Vol. 37 No. 4, March 2007 482-501.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Email feedback and queries to Dawn.com's editorial team, or visit our contact page

Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of Regionomics.com.

He tweets @regionomics.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (41) Closed

Cyrus Howell
Aug 17, 2012 03:07pm
Amen to that.
Cyrus Howell
Aug 17, 2012 03:05pm
There is a big shortage of taxis in a case like that. Doubt a returning cab could get all the way back to central Manhattan without being hailed by passengers. Cab drivers made money long into the night. Supply and demand. A cabbie could have locked his doors and put I sign in the window, Connecticut Only.
Aug 08, 2012 02:03pm
At that time I was living in detroit, and from this event I came to know 2 sides of america. First there was no panic at all initially, keep in mind poweroutage is not common at that part of world, all the cars going somoothly at the intersection, no trafiic blockage....But next day it was different complete story....No power means, no cooking, elevators not working, bathroom was out of order, gas station not working, and in the night massive looting started...since CCTV was also not working....My conclusion is that if some accident happened americans keep their nerves in control , they don't panic but they are not resilient.
Pitambara Mishra
Aug 08, 2012 12:02pm
An excelent anlysis of the south asian resiliance. Thank you.
Aug 08, 2012 12:04pm
thanks Haider for acknowleding that the social infrastructure of India is strong. Indeed the family values and culture of South Asian countries make it to stand up in face of corruption and inefficiency in the government.
Aug 08, 2012 12:43pm
India's power failure lasted only for a couple of days.Things are sort of back to normal.What can one say of Pakistan, where daily power failures are a fact of life.Resilience by the people for a day or so of power failure is one thing.The public outrage in Pakistan over repeated failure is another.
Aug 08, 2012 12:55pm
Stop comparing yourself to Pakistan will you?Let us focus on our growth.
Aug 08, 2012 12:56pm
And look at Raika for repeating the west type sentiments. Raika you did not learn anything for the article. Also please note there is a difference between power failure and power outage. On the other note, do you know that 1/3 of your household has no power at all? that makes you a country with the world largest households without power.
Raj Patel
Aug 08, 2012 01:27pm
Don't see down see up to grow. India should learn lesson from this power failure. In USA in Aug 2003 we had a black out caused by a tree. Then after regulatory authority forced utility of USA to poured millions of $$$$ in transmission infrastucture. Now we don't have issues which can be avvoided.
Cyrus Howell
Aug 08, 2012 02:12pm
It totally depends on how one defines the word Superpower. It depends on perspective. 600 million people without electricity for two days? There is a difference. The US has never had the power out in 30 states for two days. Being a Superpower is somewhat different. Are people taking about a military Superpower or an economic Superpower? or both? The Media has to sensationalize the news to get an audience to pay attention to their TV channel. That behavior means nothing. I have not watched television for ten years, and don't miss it. I don't need TV anchors to be my friends. It does make a difference who people are. Anyone who has served in the infantry or marines or in a war did not see the lights going out as any big problem. Just a temporary problem. A huge asteroid hitting earth would put the lights out permanently. That's a problem. Little was done to protect New Orleans because George W. Bush is completely clueless. Government exists only to put money into the pockets of his Republican friends. Believe me. They even laugh at swindling the public.
Aug 08, 2012 04:06pm
First, it deeply touches my heart to find a Pakistan origin and fellow South Asian brother writing an excellent heart warming and balanced analysis of the reality. Naturally, this leads me to be respectful of his writings even when on another occasion he undertakes a well informed critique of things Indian which aren't always unimpeachable. However, I am quite saddened by a certain jingoistic outpouring from a few respondents above, one raika and then indian and ali whose visionary character makes them victims of a ridiculous and vicious zero sum game and name calling and bad mouthing. May the Lord dispense some wisdom for them.
Aug 08, 2012 04:13pm
Tamil Arasan
Aug 08, 2012 05:18pm
Respect for the author of this article, I have seen many DAWN article portraying only the negative aspects of India - but this is an excellent article which sheds light on India's shortcomings and also it's strengths in an equal manner, things have changed a lot in India, 20 years back or during my parents days to get a well paying job most needed recommendation, but now it's totally different - to get a good job you don't need recommendation, caste, creed or colour but the job will come to your doorstep if one is talented, best example is me I did my diploma in Auto Mobile and along with all my batch got recruited directly form our college to work for Auto giants in our home town Chennai with a salary my father earned after 20 years of work experience in government sector, I don't want to see my country as a super power in military might but I want to see my country become a economic might and youngsters like me have full confident that we will attain that goal in next 20 years...
Aug 08, 2012 05:21pm
It's the Incredible India
Aug 08, 2012 05:50pm
Thanks Murtaza Haider. Thanks for kind words.
Aug 08, 2012 05:57pm
3 days of power outage in india and just after that Karachi hit by 3 days of power failures. This is in no way a coincidence. Is it war on all fronts or little kids at tantrums?
Aug 08, 2012 07:03pm
Often comments are heard in media about one or the other nation being soon a superpower. When someone will become a superpower everyone will know. Unnecessary focus on such things only distract all the sides. Rarely do things happen as predicted and even if they do noone is ready.
Aug 08, 2012 09:29pm
I don't agree with this aritcle, as a neighbor, we must acknowledge what is good in india regardless how politicians run their supermarkets. when was the last time you heard of a blackout in india? sure it was the biggest ever but india is no small country either !!! west is being west again !!! every country has a fair share of blackouts, don't just target india please. but hey, atleast this has given the west to talk against india which they would love to I am sure cause of the progress it has been making. I don't think it's a biggy, blackouts are common events, large or small does not matter and I don't think it will deter india from any progress, lesson learned and they would not want it to happen again.
Aug 08, 2012 10:20pm
Murtaza said nothing negative about India. In fact, he gave the story a positive spin by highlighting India's resilience. There was no need for you to have become defensive and smear Pakistan. Very cheap on your part. If India is all that great then why are highest number of immigrants to the West from India?
Aug 08, 2012 10:39pm
I think we need to look at the better things of Pakistan and India and then try to do the same in our countries because if there is no power in India or Pakistan then we the people suffer and surely that is not good. I am a Pakistani and I would like India and Pakistan both to prosper and do well and I dont understand why we all cant be happy with that.Peace brothers and lets work for a better future where we can all be winners,
Aug 08, 2012 11:04pm
We are also have the second largest number of households in the world WITH power.
Aug 09, 2012 03:05am
I was at the the Blackout in NYC at I went to school at Pace Univerisity, this story is a lie, I did not see anyone sleeping in the park, yes people were scared but there was no nonsense this write is talking about. This article is a lie and ontop of that, Columbia University is 6.2 miles from Brooklyn heights, (9.9 KM) where did he get 15km from and ontop any idiot who ever lived in Manhattan knows that inorder to get from Columbia to Brooklyn Heights, you would never go near Pen Station or Union Square, you will walk towards and stay on east side. You sir are a lier and you story does not add up at all. Such a disgusting tactic, you are an insult to writers.
Aug 09, 2012 03:20am
An excellent article. It is sad that our pathetic politicians take advantage of this and waste revenue instead of developing infrastructure. We accept frequent power cuts or power for only few hours a day without complaint.
Aug 09, 2012 04:35am
Thanks dear for kind words and appreciating india's resilience in the hour of adversity. I must say that many things are common in Pakistani awam also. However the demon of corruption seems to have affected you more then indians.
Aug 09, 2012 04:54am
I don't understand why people were not driving in NYC.. As in cars do not run on electricity in US and if they traveled on subway they could have taken a taxi.
Aug 09, 2012 05:15am
Yes. The West as usual exaggerates the woes of the East. But at the same time there was gross failure in all the levels in India. From power production to grid to supply. Let us not trivialise our faults. The only saving grace was the fact that thre was no looting and violence. Of course this was not "noticed" by the western press
Aug 09, 2012 05:56am
Raika. I think Indian should think about growth of india instead what s there or what's not there in Pakistan. Yes continuously increase in demand for the power is definitely a concern for India but we can handle it.
Aug 09, 2012 06:31am
Did something happen to your logical thinking? Here there is a comparison of A (US/Europe) and B (India). And you have unnecessarily brought C (Pakistan) into a comparison with B (India). And read the article properly and try to understand it - except for the last statement, all are objective facts. Even the last statement which is a kind of a conclusion holds India in good light.
Aug 09, 2012 07:03am
Ali, why are you anoyd with Raika she only said the truth. You should have a stomach to digest the truth.
Dhirendra Krishna
Aug 09, 2012 08:42am
Mr Murtaza Haider need not worry about India aspiring to be a "super-power." There are far too many internal problems to be tackled: poverty, growing disparity between "haves" and "have-nots", inability to spend enough on infrastructure and cope with growing demands, to name a few.
Antriksh Raj
Aug 09, 2012 10:36am
Comparing USA with India is not practicable in terms of Power, Power Outage, Poverty and Population.
Aug 09, 2012 02:17pm
Dear Murtaza, It's a great article not just because it defended my country, India, but it presented the facts in an unbiased way. I cursed Indian government during the black out because none of the Indian newspapers that I read bothered to provide such a balanced and unbiased piece, hence your article is excellent. Black outs and disasters are something that every nation faces. Sometimes, we see nations are n't prepared for the disasters. During the winter in 2010, UK failed to respond to the snow fall. It was revealed that UK doesn't have the necessary stock of salt used to de-ice the roads. My counterparts in UK were unable to reach offices. When Western nations can't manage 50-60 millions, do they sound sensible when they question India which handled 600 millions ?
Aug 09, 2012 02:18pm
"Naturally, this leads me to be respectful of his writings even when on another occasion he undertakes a well informed critique of things Indian." Ausotosh -- if you are a confident Indian you can take criticism of India and things Indian in strides -- not always looking for praise.
Aug 09, 2012 04:04pm
Agree, poor policies, poor government, lack of political will and reliance on USA has afflicted Pakistan more as compared to other nations in south east Asia. But thanks to Allah our social structure is still very strong.
Aug 09, 2012 04:06pm
Well both India and Pakistan needs politicians with "good will'.
Aug 09, 2012 06:35pm
Murtaza Bhai, This is very heart warming. Fantastic stuff!!
desi indian
Aug 10, 2012 12:39am
he is right ... stop lecturing ...
rishi kumar
Aug 10, 2012 12:41am
awesome article indeed .. murtaza haider i think u were born on wrong side of the border ...any which way pakistan needs the likes of you, hassan nissar , najam sethi , hoodbhoi etc... to get it out of the morass quagmire it has landed itself in ...
Aug 10, 2012 03:17am
You interpret in a way thats congruent to your wishful thinking. In USA you can see daily life, India is not seen as the way you are describing, i live here everyday. I dismiss your opinion
Aug 10, 2012 07:19am
Thank you brother. My respect and love for my siblings from across border is increasing day by day. We shall work and progress together
Aug 14, 2012 07:07am
Dear NASAH, yes we do take constructive criticism... but when some western countries criticize developing countries just bcoz they envy our growth, is not acceptable.. we dont take that... Thanks