Somini Sengupta, reporting from Gurgaon, a suburb south of New Delhi, notes the long-standing energy crisis that I couldn’t help but notice while there a couple summers ago:
Look up at the tops of buildings, and on any given day, you are likely to find three, four or six smokestacks poking out of each, blowing gray-black plumes into the clouds. If the smokestacks are being used, it means the power is off and the building — whether bright new mall, condominium or office — is probably being powered by diesel-fed generators.
This being India, a country of more than one billion people, the scale is staggering. In just one case, Tata Consultancy Services, a technology company, maintains five giant generators, along with a nearly 5,300-gallon tank of diesel fuel underground, as if it were a gasoline station.
The reserve fuel can power the lights, computers and air-conditioners for up to 15 days to keep Tata’s six-story building humming during these hot, dry summer months, when temperatures routinely soar above 100 degrees and power cuts can average eight hours a day.
The Gurgaon skyline is studded with hundreds of buildings like this. In Gurgaon alone, the state power authority estimates that the gap between demand and supply hovers around 20 percent, and that is probably a conservative estimate.
For all those who suffer from crippling power cuts in cities like this, there are others who have no connection to electricity at all. According to the Planning Commission of India, 600 million people — roughly half the population — are off the electric grid. For this reason, it is impossible to estimate accurately the total national shortfall.
What the state cannot provide efficiently, many take for themselves. The World Bank estimates that at least $4 billion in electricity is unaccounted for each year — that is to say, stolen. Transparency International estimated in 2005 that Indians paid $480 million in bribes to put in new connections or correct bills.
Shopping centers routinely run to the sound and smell of numerous diesel generators, one by each shop’s front door, powering that shop’s lights and air conditioning.
When a large company or a nice restaurant loses power and the lights go out, the locals will joke, “Welcome to India!”
This is what’s particularly infuriating though:
With few exceptions, there is little effort to reduce power consumption, beyond the use of low-energy light bulbs. Gurgaon is dotted with buildings that are effectively curtains of glass, soaking up the searing summer heat.
“It’s good for New York, not Gurgaon,” was the verdict of Niranjan Khatri, a general manager with ITC, an Indian conglomerate whose office tower here is one of the few to comply with so-called green building codes.
Across the highway, the nearly completed Ambi Mall promises almost a mile of shopping on each floor. Next to it, a billboard for the Mall of India promises an even bigger shopping center, one that will put India on the “global retail map.”
Never mind that Gurgaon does not have a sewage treatment plant of its own, or that the city’s Metropolitan Mall burns an average of 1,600 gallons of diesel a day to run its generators during power cuts.
Farther south, in Nirvana Country, there are only generators. The 800-unit complex of row houses and apartment blocks, still under construction, is not even connected to the electric grid. It swallows 6,000 gallons of diesel each week to meet its needs — with only a fifth of its units occupied.
It was unclear how the power needs would be met once it reached full occupancy, said M. K. Pant, a retired army colonel who is now Nirvana’s estate manager. “There’s nothing in the files,” he said. “There’s nothing in the thinking also.”
No matter. Newspaper advertisements for Nirvana Country promise “air-conditioning in all rooms.”
There seems to be a blind obedience to American norms and practices, whether or not they make sense in an Indian context.