Our outage, their outage

There is no penalty clause on private power companies in the USA, which fund both the main political parties.

I have spent many years in USA, first as a Ph.D student in the late 1960s and then subsequently at different times as a professor in US universities. My latest stint was for a couple months of vacation in USA. A number of things took place during my latest stay in USA. These made me notice a few interesting contrasts between USA and India which I did not feel so acutely earlier.

First, there was a massive power outage in several states. The cause was a typical nor’wester type rain and storm which we in India experience many times during the rainy season. But what really surprised me was that it caused power lines to snap causing a massive power outage that lasted for three to seven days in many places. A cool announcement was made that it would  take up to a week to restore power in such and such areas.

 What was even more striking to me -- an Indian -- is that there was no protest by the public or uproar in the media over this long ordeal. I was told by people who are permanent residents of US that such power outage for days together have been occurring   several times a year – both in hot summer and extremely cold winter. This time it was hot summer days with temperature running to above 90 degrees (f) inside the house.

There was no electricity. All food in the fridge got spoiled. No cooking was possible for families whose stoves run on electricity (rather than gas). Many of the traffic signals were not working which made driving highly risky. It was a horrible experience, specially for small babies and the old and the sick. How much worse it would be in a harsh winter without heating!  The power companies are private companies who do not find it profitable to maintain a technical staff strength which can restore power to all areas before five to seven days.

In Kolkata (where I live in India) the power company is also a private concern (CESC Ltd). If power is not restored within a few hours, whatever be the reason, people – along with local political leaders -- would gherao the CESC office and would force them to work round the clock to restore power. Otherwise, the workers would be manhandled and the office would be ransacked. The media would also be up in arms.

Though violence cannot be condoned, I wished that people in US and the media were less tolerant of such ordeals. Both the political parties in USA receive massive election contributions from the private companies. So, there is no penalty clause imposed on power companies which can take its sweet time to restore such an essential service like electricity.

Bottom lines

The general public has been taught right from the school days to be patient and tolerant. The outcome is that the private companies can afford to care only about their bottom lines, by cutting down on manpower which is totally inadequate to deal with any wide-area emergencies.

The power lines are also very flimsy which readily snap even with moderate storms. There are no initiatives to make them sturdier which would cost money.  If there were strong penalty clauses which would force the power companies to pay hefty compensation for the loss and hardship caused to the subscribers, the companies would have behaved differently.  

Next came the mass killing by a deranged college student who gunned down scores of movie-goers at the premiere of a Batman movie. This was quickly followed by several other killings including the massacre of sikhs at a gurdwara in USA. The same strong business lobby (this time the very powerful gun lobby) is largely responsible for these killings. The free market for guns in USA enables any deranged mind to get hold of any number of guns (including combat assault rifles) and ammunitions to kill at will.

 The gun industry in USA (along with supporting politicians) argues that criminals can, in any case, acquire guns illegally. Only the law-abiding citizens will find it difficult to protect themselves against the criminals if gun control is enforced. This is a ridiculous argument. The simple fact is that regular criminals do not go into cinema halls or temples or schools to kill people against whom they have no particular grudge. Mostly, criminals (like mafia groups) use guns against other competing criminals or the police.


The absence of strict gun laws makes it so easy for an ordinary school student or an insane person to get guns and kill people indiscriminately on some momentary impulse. Demented people are not scarce in India – the only blessing is that they cannot easily acquire guns!  

Finally, while  waiting at a Greyhound bus station to change buses in the middle of night I saw a lone cleaning man meticulously cleaning the floor and polishing the brass door knobs even though those already appeared quite clean and shiny to my Indian eyes. There was no supervisor to check what the guy was doing in the dead of night. I realised that despite all the ills of America this work ethic of ordinary workers still keeps America the economic super power. How much I wished we Indians had emulated this from the Americans, and not just their mannerisms, fatty foods and pop culture. 

(The writer is a former professor of economics at IIM, Calcutta)

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