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India - Generator heaven
Sunday, 04 March 2007
Follow the news about India and you hear and read about incredible growth of the economy, booming IT industry and the Bollywood movie scene. Travelling through India with all this news on the background raised a big question, how are these developments possible while electricity supply in India is so unreliable? We assumed there would be some sort of continuous electricity supply. After 1 month of India we’ve experienced the total opposite. India’s electricity supply is limited and discontinue on a daily basis for most of the country. To make matters worse, it’s winter time now. Big electricity consumers like air conditioning devices are switched off. So we’ve seen the best of India’s electricity supply – and it’s not good news by far.

It’s 6 am in Agra – India’s tourist gem – the location of the Taj Mahal. Electricity is switched off in the area we’re in, next to the Agra fort. It’ll come back on at around 6 pm. 12 hours without electricity with several businesses next door. Imagine owning a business in these conditions.

It doesn’t take long to figure out you need a generator – and not a small one. One that can power your (sensitive) office equipment, maybe your AC too and at least the lights to be able to see something inside your office. Say you have a 5 Kw generator and takes about 1 liter diesel / hour. (fuel efficient version) To bridge the 12 hour electricity gap, you need about 400 rs / day or 2380 rs / month. (41 Euro / month).
If you have an old generator you can safely double this money. On top of this add your monthly electricity bill for the remaining 12 hours. In Indian economy this is expensive. Very expensive, and this is without generator maintenance. You better have a good business covering those bills.

We stay in Bikaner for a few days. Our prepay mobile phone card needs recharging. We find the office to do it – sorry sir, can you come back round 5 pm? No electricity. We see the man work behind his computer, it’s on! But your computer is working we say. Yes, I have an UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply), but only for one computer. The computer we use for recharging your prepaid SIM card is off. This is Airtel – the biggest mobile phone provider in India.

So what happens for the small businesses? The generator doesn’t run all the time (if you can afford one), work is done when there is electricity and worst of all – the electricity meter is bypassed. You pay bills regularly and you get irregular electricity. It’s pure survival – What other options available for the small business owner?

Afternoon in Pushkar, we have lunch in a restaurant. Unknowingly we ordered a dish which needs electricity, a blender to grind spinach. Waiter comes back and asks us to order something else. This business doesn’t have a generator so basically it has an electricity menu and a non-electricity menu. It seems a bit funny, but it isn’t.

Digging a bit deeper – electricity theft seems to be quite common in India. According to a 2007 article of the BBC – Delhi has a whopping 42% loss of electricity. How can any electricity firm survive when close to half of the output is unaccounted for? In comparison, China the other economic giant has a national loss of only 3 %. (According to the BBC.) Surprisingly electricity theft in India is a criminal act only since 2003….

We are in Amritsar in the evening having a beer after 3 months of Pakistan. Suddenly the light goes off – complete darkness. This is at a mid-range hotel, rooms are not cheap. A few minutes later we hear someone walk to a HUGE and very new generator and starts it. Light again in the noise and smell of a heavy diesel engine.

And it gets worse, what about the homes of Indians citizens? You can own a modern fridge but it’s in defrost state most of the day. You can maybe pay for a generator but who pays the fuel bills? Consequently the house is run on limited supply of electricity, but you have to pay your electricity bills on a regular basis. So what you do? Doesn’t take long to figure that bypassing your electricity meter is part of reducing the damage to your wallet.

2/3 of India’s electricity is produced by burning vast amounts of easily accessible coals. The rest is hydroelectricity. According to the news nuclear electricity is in the making and alternative sources are being investigated. There must be some sense of urgency here.
With the current growth of India’s economy where does all this go?

A Reliance electricity plant outside Mumbai reports it’s at peak production already. Of course demand is growing in a growing economy, however we can somehow imagine people don’t invest in heavy electricity consumers when there is none to run it on.

It’s 6 pm, electricity comes back on again but drops again after an hour. Outside it’s dark, we run our household on batteries – we have light and live on as nothing happened. Electricity comes back on again but only with 180 volts – its enough but the light flickers all the time indicating the voltage goes up and down all the time.

We’ve seen quite a few 3rd world countries, but never have experienced black-outs like in India. We read a little more and find reports that India is probably the only country in the world suffering from continuous black-outs on such wide spread scale on a daily basis.

Somehow India is coping and growing. It must be because of a very lucrative trade in big heavy generators. But only for those who can afford one.

Incredible India!
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