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Why 320 Million Indians Didn’t Notice When the Lights Went Out

Last week, the giant blackout in India – reportedly the largest in human history – furnished many of us here in America with a valuable opportunity to raise issues about our own increasingly blackout-prone electric grid. We’ve had plenty to say on this topic here. But the actual experience of the blackout in India was not exactly what the newsleads probably led many of us to imagine. “On Tuesday, India suffered the largest electrical blackoutin history, affecting an area encompassing about 670 million people,” the New York Timesreported.

As Jonathan Shainin reported from New Delhi this Friday for the New Yorker‘s web site, those numbers are a bit misleading. “Though the headlines announced that seven hundred million people across twenty-one states had lost power, only about three hundred and twenty million of those had any electricity to begin with: in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and one of its poorest, sixty-three per cent of households, or about a hundred and twenty-five million people, lack access to electricity.”

For many members of India’s vocal middle class – "a term usually employed here to denote something like the 9.9 per cent just below the top 0.1 per cent,” Shainin writes – the blackout was indeed cause for indignation, but more because it tarnished India’s reputation as a rising superpower than because it plunged them in darkness. To be sure, there was chaos: trains stalled, water supplies dried up, and hospitals were crippled. But blackouts happen frequently enough in India that many better-off Indians rely on generator power as a commonplace – and hence experienced the  largest blackout in human history as “a brief flicker of the lights.”