Media ‘tripped' on power outage

BY Archana Venkat| IN Media Practice | 03/08/2012
The reportage on the massive power outage in 20 States failed to provide answers to people's most fundamental questions.
ARCHANA VENKAT presents a series of conflicting reports that confused the readers/viewers.
The sheer scale of the power failure in northern India which persisted for two days and extended to 20 States by Tuesday evening led to hundreds of news reports on the issue. Unfortunately, most of this coverage, while talking about macro issues in the sector, did not attempt to seek basic answers to the questions that the readers had at the time of the power failure--What caused this power failure? Who is responsible? What is being done to restore normalcy? Will we see more of this?
No English media editorial focused on this issue directly. Instead, editorials galore talked about the need for grid discipline, strict penalty for non-compliance, power sector woes, need for a power sector watchdog and better infrastructure. They questioned as to who will discipline the offending parties and how the grid had survived for this long.
Now that power has been restored in most parts of north, east and north-east India, the media may perhaps think it is not relevant any more to dwell on these aspects. Nevertheless, it was a gaping hole, as readers missed some key issues.   
1.   The cause for the grid failure went unreported. Reports were at best speculative on why the power broke down. The Hindu promptly put out the news of the power blackout and conveniently mentioned that Sushilkumar Shinde (who was the Power Minister when the outage occurred) did not want to comment on this issue. Many reports plugged in industry agenda about the “need for power reforms in the country.” A BBC report was the first to say that States could be drawing more power than usual from the grid. By Wednesday, while most papers seemed to agree that some form of over-drawing resulted in the breakdown, a CNN-IBN report said the Eastern grid was perhaps responsible for the breakdown, contradicting the assumption that the Northern grid was responsible for this situation.
A piece in the Economic Times attempted to provide some clarity by discussing what causes grid failure but went unnoticed as it was placed in an obscure corner of the newspaper.
Experts, instead of explaining what could have caused the power failure, were busy pushing the larger agenda of power sector reforms. A report in the Economic Times compiled the statements of various industry experts, most of them speaking about how States were getting greedy for more power and unwilling to pay the price for it. 
The English television news channels went on an overdrive, and the various panelists called on the shows seemed to have not gathered any facts on the case. “An accident,” “lack of grid discipline”, “the grid itself is technically unsound”, ”over drawing of power” and ironically “not over drawing of power”, “excessive generation of power”, “negligence and oversight”, and “gross mismanagement” were all given as reasons for the grid failure.
Is it not possible to look at electricity meters, gauges, and other records of various power stations to figure out if over-drawing was happening, as well as details pertaining to who was drawing more power and from which grid? While it is palpable that the culprits do not want to own up, why did the media have to shelter them by not asking this simple yet hard-hitting question?
Times NOW on Tuesday night managed to get some figures indicating that Haryana withdrew 51% over the allocated quota just minutes before the grid failure occurred. When confronted, the panelist representing the State, admitted to it thereby promptly ending the discussion. What was the objective of such a question, if there could be no follow-up questions? Other TV channels took this opportunity to host a name-calling slugfest where panelists openly blamed certain political parties and States for violating power withdrawing norms.
2.   The corrective action taken by the Ministry to restore power was not reported. While print media reports eventually mentioned power being restored across most parts of the country, they did not mention how this was done or for how long such measures would hold.
Both questions are significant given the poor state of power sector infrastructure in the country, as was highlighted by almost all media reports subsequently. Except for a few reports on Wednesday morning, the media did not attempt to explain how hydel power was being used temporarily to kickstart power in the grids. One report from the Economic Times mentioned hydel power from the Bhakra Nangal Dam project being used to restore power in Delhi, and another conflicting report from the Outlook mentioned Delhi being powered by hydel power from Bhutan via the Eastern grid.
Such conflicting reports appeared throughout the two days when the power failure occurred. One such instance was when NDTV 24/7 and Times NOW indicated that 35 to 75% of Delhi had power restored by 9 p.m. on Tuesday, whereas CNN-IBN rejected this claim and urged the viewers to not rely on any such statements.
The net result of such coverage was that the readers/viewers were unclear if and when power would be restored, and many vox-populi segments on TV said so.
3.   There was no clarity on electricity consumption figures. This piece of information is vital to understand what could have caused a high demand for power on Monday. After all, power grids don’t fail because of a marginal increase in power. Given the facts that some States constantly borrow power from other regional/State grids, only a substantially high requirement could have resulted in power failure. This CNN-IBN report mentions that 3,000 Mega Watt (MW) of power was overdrawn from the eastern grid, while the same report says that Delhi had a requirement of 4000MW on Monday when the power failed. Can the reader assume that the average daily power requirement in Delhi is typically only 1,000 MW then? Perhaps not, if one saw the Times Of India report which mentioned that the power consumption in Delhi in peak summer was 5,000 MW.
Further, the CNN IBN report mentions the average overdrawing of electricity by various States. These numbers are suddenly mentioned not in MW but in “units”.
The next day, the Times Of India gave a graphical interpretation of the situation indicating what was the average traffic on these grids on normal days versus on the day of the outage. Surprisingly, the traffic at the time of the trip across all the three grids was below the average withdrawal limits by these grids. How then could the grids trip? No explanation was provided.
Panelists on various television news shows took the opportunity to throw more figures at viewers: 3 lakh MW (the power shortage in the country), 50 paise per unit (proposed price of electricity in the 1994 power sector reform Bill), Rs. 2 lakh crore (the deficit in various State power distribution companies), 10-15% (growth in power generation), and various grid frequency-related figures.
What do these numbers mean to the average reader? Did they indicate that power restoration would at best be temporary?
The three aspects discussed above highlight that three of the “5Ws and 1H,” which form the basis of a news report, are missing: Who (who is responsible for the grid failure), Why (why did the failure occur), and How (how did the power failure spread). These questions remain unaddressed, although media outlets may see no point in revisiting them, given the power restoration.
Perhaps the government’s swift action to replace Mr. Shinde with Dr. Veerappa Moily ensured that the media had a bigger (and more important) issue to report than just the power outage. The net result was that most reports on Tuesday evening were focused on three issues: Was Mr. Shinde capable of handling the Home Ministry? Was the power crisis a reflection of a governance crisis? and whether the Moily-led Ministry would seriously take up power sector reforms.

On Wednesday all media outlets seem to have revisited their archives and mentioned the larger issues in the power sector and the need for power sector reforms. While it is commendable to look at broader issues and implications of the power failure, fundamental questions cannot go unaddressed.

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