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Second Indian outage in two days cuts power to more than 600 million people

Trains and subways ground to a halt as more than 600 million people in India faced a blackout after half the national power grid shut down. Experts say the outdated grid cannot keep up with the country's energy needs. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

Updated at 11:10 a.m. ET: NEW DELHI -- Half of India's 1.2 billion people were without power Tuesday as the grids covering 19 states broke down, the second major blackout in as many days.

Stretching from Assam, near China, to the Himalayas and the northwestern deserts of Rajasthan, the outage was the worst to hit India in more than a decade and embarrassed the government, which has failed to build up enough power capacity to meet soaring demand.


The power loss includes grid failures in northern, eastern and northeastern India.

A power outage in India has left more than 600 million people without electricity in one of the world's biggest-ever blackouts. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

"Even before we could figure out the reason for yesterday's failure, we had more grid failures today," said R. N. Nayak, chairman of the state-run Power Grid Corporation. 

By the afternoon rush hour, only about 40 percent of power was back up. Electricity had not been restored to all of the sweltering capital, New Delhi, and streets were clogged with commuters trying to get home.

"It's certainly shameful. Power is a very basic amenity and situations like these should not occur," said Unnayan Amitabh, 19, an intern with HSBC bank in New Delhi, as he was giving up on the underground train system and flagging down an auto-rickshaw to get home.

"They (politicians) talk about big ticket reforms but can't get something as essential as power supply right," Amitabh said.

Temperatures in New Delhi have been about average for this time of year, hovering in the 90s with some rain. But the rains from the June-September monsoon season, which is the primary source of irrigation for most of India's farmlands, have been about 20 percent below average up to this point, according to The Economic Times, India's top financial paper.

Among the states hit hard are agricultural areas such as wheat-belt Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in the Ganges plains, which has a larger population than Brazil. With less rain to irrigate crops, more farmers resort to electric pumps to draw water from wells.

Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP

Heavy traffic clogged streets in central New Delhi, India, on Tuesday following power outages and rain.

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Miners trapped
Two hundred miners were stranded in three deep coal shafts in the state of West Bengal when their electric elevators stopped working. Eastern Coalfields Limited official Niladri Roy said workers at the mines, one of which is 3,000 feet deep, were not in danger and were being taken out.

Train stations in Kolkata were swamped and traffic jammed the streets after government offices closed early in the dilapidated coastal city of 5 million people.

The power failed in some major city hospitals and office buildings had to fire up diesel generators.

By mid-evening, services had been restored on the New Delhi metro system. 

"At one level it is not all that dramatic because most people do have backups because our power system is prone to breakdowns. What is dramatic today is that it has happened across the country," Himangshu Watts, the energy editor for The Economic Times told NBC News.

"In big cities like Delhi all the hospitals will have backup generation. ... What I'm concerned about (is) what would happen in ... surgery in a small town," he said.

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Power cuts at major hospitals
Nineteen of India's 28 states with a total population of more than 600 million people suffered outages on Tuesday, India's NDTV said, with the lights out even at major hospitals in Kolkata.

Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde blamed the system collapse on some states drawing more than their share of electricity from the overstretched grid. Asia's third-largest economy suffers a peak-hour power deficit of about 10 percent, dragging on economic growth.

"This is the second day that something like this has happened. I've given instructions that whoever overdraws power will be punished," Shinde said.

A staffer at the Indian Ministry of Power told NBC News that Tuesday's outage, which occurred just after 2 p.m. (4:30 a.m. ET), was still being repaired.

Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP

Commuters wait for buses outside a subway station in New Delhi on Tuesday after the second major power outage in two days disrupted services in India's capital.

On Monday, India was forced to buy extra power from the tiny neighboring kingdom of Bhutan to help it recover from that blackout, which hit more than 300 million people.

Creaky infrastructure
Power shortages and a creaky road and rail network have also weighed heavily on the country's efforts to industrialize. Grappling with the slowest economic growth in nine years, India recently scaled back a target to pump $1 trillion into infrastructure over the next five years.

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Major industries have dedicated power plants or large diesel generators and are shielded from outages -- but the inconsistent supply hits investment and disrupts small businesses.

High consumption of heavily subsidized diesel by farmers and businesses has fueled a gaping fiscal deficit that the government has vowed to tackle to restore confidence in the economy. But the poor monsoon season means a subsidy cut is politically difficult.

NBC staff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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