Protest over new Indian state sparks power crisis

INDIA - Massive brownouts threatened to hit some 250 million people across four of India's southern states as some power companies shut down in the face of fierce protests over a plan to divide Andhra Pradesh in two.

In Andhra Pradesh, widespread power outages proved potentially life-threatening, endangering patients in intensive care units in some hospitals.

Many people found that they could not charge their cellphones or get cash from ATMs, and more than 50 trains plying the region were cancelled, according to Agence France-Presse. Hospitals and airports turned to emergency back-up generators.

Last Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Cabinet approved plans to form a new state, Telengana, from 10 of the least developed districts out of the 23 in politically important Andhra Pradesh.

Hyderabad would remain as the joint capital of both states, but violent protests erupted over the move, mainly in the developed existing parts of Andhra Pradesh. A hub for pharmaceutical companies and India's second-largest information technology centre, it has 42 seats in Parliament.

Some 30,000 power employees in the state joined protests on Sunday when they went on strike, blacking out parts of the state.

"We don't have power at all including in our offices. But we are continuing our agitation against the creation of Telengana. We don't want the state to be divided," said Mr Chiranjeevi Rao from the Vishakapatnam office of the Eastern Power Distribution Company of Andhra Pradesh.

Hyderabad also felt the pinch with two-hour power cuts during the day.

Mr Lee Fu Nyap, chief executive of Ascendas India Operations, a Singapore firm which manages three IT parks in the city, said the company had taken pre-emptive steps.

"Services at our IT parks remain unaffected and business is normal," he said, noting that the firm "has generators in case the power shutdown affects the city".

Apart from Ascendas, other Singapore companies like Sembcorp, which is constructing a power plant, SembRamky Environmental Management, and Surbana have projects in Andhra Pradesh.

But the more immediate worry for South India is that the disturbance in power distribution in that state could impact the rest of the Southern grid and affect states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

The chief ministers of neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Ms J. Jayalalithaa and Mr K. Siddaramaiah respectively, yesterday expressed concern over the situation and called Andhra Pradesh chief minister Kiran Kumar Reddy hoping for assurances that the strike would end soon.

But no headway was made in talks between Mr Reddy and the labour unions of the state's power plants, which maintained they would continue the strike.

A senior power employee from the southern state of Karnataka said the priority was to ensure the rest of South India was not affected.

"It is a huge grid which is working on a balance and if Andhra starts tripping and the balance is lost it will be a problem.

"So far there are no instances of a disturbance in the grid. Grid operators have it under control," he said on condition of anonymity.

Last year, the northern grid collapsed after some states overdrew power, affected millions of Indians in what was the biggest power failure in the country.

But the protests over the creation of India's 29th state, to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, are likely to continue.

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