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NEW DELHI - A massive power failure hit India for the second day Tuesday as three national grids collapsed, blacking out more than half the country in an unprecedented outage affecting over 600 million people.
Hundreds of miners were trapped underground in the eastern state of West Bengal when the lifts failed, metro services were stopped temporarily in the capital and hundreds of trains were held up nationwide.
"The north, northeastern and the eastern grids are down but we are working and we will have them restored shortly," Naresh Kumar, a spokesman at the Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd, told AFP.
Federal Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde told reporters that the monster outage, which struck around 1:00 p.m. (0730 GMT) in the middle of the working day, was caused by states drawing power "beyond their permissible limits".
There appeared to have been a domino effect, with the overloaded northern grid drawing too heavily on the eastern grid which in turn led the northeastern network to collapse.
An area stretching from the western border with Pakistan to the far northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh next to China was affected, with the huge cities of New Delhi, Kolkata and Lucknow suffering without supplies.
"Half the country is without power. It's a situation totally without precedent," said Vivek Pandit, an energy expert at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Power was gradually flickering back in some areas several hours after the crisis struck and Power Grid Corp. chairman R. N. Nayak promised that the problems would be rectified by 7:00 p.m. (1330 GMT).
"Our message to people is 'they are in safe hands, we have been in the job for years'," Nayak told reporters at a news conference during which he apologized for the disruption.
Worst outage in decade
In New Delhi, the metro train system came to a standstill for a few hours and traffic lights went out, causing chaos for a second day after a failure on the northern grid on Monday which caused the worst outage in more than a decade.
On the streets, people seethed over the lack of air conditioning, crashed computer systems and missed deliveries.
"I had been waiting for a shipment of stock to arrive since morning and now I'm told it will be delayed indefinitely," said furious Delhi businessman Anshul Aggarwal.
"The stock was coming on a goods train which is now stuck in the middle of nowhere," Aggarwal said.
About 400 trains on the national rail network were hit, a railways spokesman told AFP, with all operations stopped in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a population of about 200 million people, bigger than Brazil's.
In Jaipur, capital of the western state of Rajasthan, renowned internationally as a jewelry center, gem cutters and polishers were forced to put down their tools.
"We have almost 200,000 workers engaged in the trade and most of them operate from their houses. They don't have power back up, so it's obviously a major problem," said Vivek Kala, a former president of Jaipur Jewellers Association.
In the east, Kolkata went without power as did the surrounding state of West Bengal as the eastern grid, which supplies five states, failed under the stress of over-demand.
"This is the worst power crisis in the region. We were supplying power to the northern grid and this power sharing has led to the collapse," West Bengal Power Minister Manish Gupta told AFP.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee told reporters that "hundreds" of miners had been trapped in mines operated by the government-owned Eastern Coalfields Ltd in Burdwan, about 180 kilometers (110 miles) northwest of Kolkata.
"All efforts are on to resume power supplies. You need power supplies to run the lifts in the underground mines," she said, while declaring that state employees could go home for the day.
Monday's outage had seen the northern grid, which supplies nine states including Delhi, collapse for six hours shortly after 2:00 a.m.
In total, 20 out of 29 states were affected on Tuesday, according to an AFP calculation.
Shinde, the power minister, had called Monday's outage a "failure" but also boasted that India had been quick to restore power, unlike the United States which took days to restore electricity after a 2003 blackout on its eastern seaboard.
He and the rest of the government woke up Tuesday to a barrage of calls from business lobby groups for urgent reform of the power sector.
"The increasing gap between electricity supply and demand has long been a matter of concern," said Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry.