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Modern India, by Candlelight

Two blackouts expose the state’s inability to build a grid
Holding a candle, a barber cuts the hair of a customer in his shop in Kolkata, India
Holding a candle, a barber cuts the hair of a customer in his shop in Kolkata, IndiaPhotograph by Bikas Das/AP Photo

Northern India’s electricity returned with a pop on July 31 as light bulbs in south Delhi exploded, refrigerators groaned from the surge in power, and electricity sockets spat smoke. Twice in two days much of India lost electricity in back-to-back grid failures. While the return of power brought relief, it also fried appliances. Surge protector sales jumped at New Delhi’s Pankaj Electronics, as did sales of light bulbs and fuse boxes at Kotla Mubarakpur market.

On Day One, nearly 360 million people—roughly the population of the U.S. and Canada—lost power across seven states in northern India when excessive demand and a shortfall in hydropower overwhelmed the system. Some 12 hours later power resumed in the capital—only to fail again the next day, with the chaos spreading to Calcutta and other parts of eastern India, affecting 640 million Indians. Crematoriums in Delhi switched back to wood, tax authorities extended the deadline for filing returns, and stock analysts recommended shares of power equipment makers in anticipation of more investment in the grid.