Jonathan Shainin in The New Yorker:
As world news events go, the biggest power failure in history—which struck India Tuesday afternoon, plunging almost seven hundred million people into hypothetical darkness—may have been less momentous than advertised. There was chaos, of course: gridlocked traffic, stalled trains, and stranded commuters. Water supplies were interrupted, hospitals ceased all but essential services, and at least a few hundred unlucky miners in two eastern states were trapped underground for several nerve-wracking hours.
But power cuts are hardly uncommon in India, which is why offices and factories have diesel generators and the homes of the better-off come equipped with battery backup systems. (Basharat Peer has written about how strategies for shortages are woven into daily life.) Many people caught in the middle of the world’s biggest power outage experienced it as a brief flicker of the lights. And many others didn’t experience it at all. 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. Nationwide, about one third of households (roughly four hundred million people, more than everyone in the United States) don’t have electricity—which sounds like an astonishing number, until you consider that twenty years ago fifty-eight per cent of households were without electric power.