New Delhi tempers flare over crippling power cuts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 July, 2002, 12:00am

Officials fear riots could break out in New Delhi if there is no relief from crippling power cuts - some lasting 12 to 17 hours - that have plagued the city for the past two weeks.

Crowds of furious, sweaty and miserable residents have been gathering outside electricity call centres in the capital. They have been getting through the days and nights using candles, hand-held fans and bedsheets dunked in cold water to cope with suffocating humidity and temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius.

For the past 50 years, the power supply has been in government hands. The sole power supplier, the Delhi Vidyut Board, was considered one of the most corrupt institutions in India with a reputation for greed, graft and extortion. Studies showed 60 per cent of the board's power was stolen, resulting in regular power cuts and higher bills than necessary for honest people who paid for what they used.

But the board went bankrupt, leading the New Delhi government to privatise power distribution on July 1. The board still generates electricity, but private firms now distribute power in the city.

No one expected miracles after half a century of inefficiency and claims of dishonesty but the handover was met with the feeling things could only get better.

The transition has been rocky, however, either because the companies did not know what they were taking on or because of sabotage by unions, or both. Observers and government officials believe employees are deliberately ignoring complaints and not repairing faults to discredit the private companies and paint the old board as preferable to the new regime.

Whatever the explanation, people are at the end of their tether. 'I made my children sleep in the car last night with the air conditioner turned on,' said Poonam Kumar, a New Delhi housewife.

For millions of residents, no power also means no water because they use electric pumps to draw water from underground sources instead of relying on the unreliable municipal supply.

Mental health experts fear the lack of power and water could provoke road rage, family discord and neighbourhood squabbles. Psychiatrist Samir Parekh said: 'Whenever a crowd gathers in the heat, there is a risk of violence.'

A two-year-old girl has become the first casualty of the cuts. She died of burns sustained as a candle fell on a can of kerosene in the Sadar Bazaar area during a seven-hour cut.

The Congress government in New Delhi has run advertisements in the press pleading with people to be patient. The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has, however, issued an ultimatum.

If the power supply does not improve in one week, it will launch a protest campaign. Meanwhile, people scan the skies for signs of the monsoon to provide more relief from the heat. Weather forecasters have predicted its arrival for 10 days but no clouds are in sight.