Lights Out

Article excerpt

Byline: Niall Ferguson

India's massive blackout is just the beginning.

The British--slightly less than a thousand of them--used to govern India. Without air-conditioning.

Conan O'Brien was not the only one who watched the London Olympic opening ceremonies with amazement. "Hard to believe my ancestors were conquered by theirs," he tweeted. Every Indian watching must have been thinking the very same.

Until their TVs went dark.

The recent power outage in India interested me more than the Olympics. (I had a very British reaction to the opening ceremonies: I found them excruciatingly embarrassing.) The Indian blackout was surely the biggest electricity failure in history, affecting a staggering 640 million people. If you have ever visited Delhi in the summer, you will have some idea what it must have felt like.

"Every door and window was shut," Rudyard Kipling recalled of summer in the scorched Indian plains, "for the outside air was that of an oven. The atmosphere within was only 104 degrees, as the thermometer bore witness, and heavy with the foul smell of badly-trimmed kerosene lamps; and this stench, combined with that of native tobacco, baked brick, and dried earth, sends the heart of many a strong man down to his boots, for it is the smell of the Great Indian Empire when she turns herself for six months into a house of torment."

There was a reason the British moved their capital to the cool Himalayan hill station of Simla every summer. Maybe today's Indian government should consider following their example. Because power failures like this are not about to get less frequent. On the contrary, the outage has exposed the single greatest vulnerability of the Asian economic miracle: it is fundamentally underpowered.

In the past 10 years, according to the energy giant BP, India's coal consumption has more than doubled, its oil consumption has increased by 52 percent, and its natural-gas consumption has jumped by 131 percent. For China the figures are, respectively, 155 percent, 101 percent, and 376 percent. Asia as a whole is insatiably guzzling fossil fuels. And this is not about to stop. The McKinsey Global Institute expects India's economy to grow at an average rate of between 7 percent and 8 percent from now until 2030.

The good news is that all this growth will do something (though not enough) to compensate for the depressed state of indebted developed economies like the United States and Europe. …