Modi's lights-out stunt worries Indian utilities

Modi's lights-out stunt worries Indian utilities

PM wants to 'challenge the darkness' of coronavirus, if the power grid can cope

Homeless people sit in the corridor of a locked shelter where they have been confined during India’s 21-day nationwide lockdown, at Howrah, on the outskirts of Kolkata. (Reuters Photo)
Homeless people sit in the corridor of a locked shelter where they have been confined during India’s 21-day nationwide lockdown, at Howrah, on the outskirts of Kolkata. (Reuters Photo)

NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called on Indians to switch off the lights on Sunday evening to “challenge the darkness” of the coronavirus outbreak. But that could mean blackouts for some citizens as utilities take steps to safeguard their equipment.

Switching off lights for nine minutes at 9pm — Modi has called on people to use candles instead — could result in a sudden drop of about 15 gigawatts of power demand across the nation, said SN Sahai, secretary of the power ministry.

In Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, the state-run utility plans to switch off power in phases to stop the surge in voltage from threatening the power grid and equipment, UP Power Transmission Corp said in a letter sent to generators.

The country plans to switch off some of its hydropower generation capacity to deal with the sudden dip in demand, Sahai said.

While India has barely tested 66,000 for the disease in the world’s most populated ncountry after China, Modi has spoken to his citizens twice, each time asking them to take part in a new activity to show solidarity in the fight against the disease.

The prime minister asked Indians to clap, rings bells, bang utensils and blow conch shells on March 22, and this time, to switch off lights and use candles.

“These symbolic calls for solidarity will be more meaningful and credible if they’re accompanied by substantive, stepped-up measures to combat the virus,” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“Otherwise, they’re easy to dismiss as empty gestures meant to distract from the government’s struggle to curb the spread of coronavirus.”

India is battling to secure foreign-made test kits while red tape is slowing the deployment of locally made ones. The number of tests in India is far slower than the pace in the US and even further behind that of top testing countries such as South Korea, sparking speculation that the official tally of infections is underestimating the true size of its outbreak.

As of Saturday, the country of 1.3 billion people had officially reported 3,082 Covid-19 cases and 86 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

On March 22, many Indians rushed outside and gathered in groups to clap and make noise, violating the need to maintain distance. To avoid a repeat, Modi asked citizens not to step outside their homes during the lights-out exercise on Sunday.

“We have been asked by the grid operator to be flexible,” said Bharat Rohra, chief executive officer at Jindal Power Ltd. “Our grid handles such shocks on a daily basis when the solar generation goes out in the evening. The system can handle this too if it’s planned well.”

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