Saturday, October 17, 2009

Festival of Lights

For over one billion people around the world, most of who are in India, today will mark a new beginning. A celebratory beginning symbolized by among other things – a festival of lights. This celebration known to many Hindus and even some Buddhists as Diwali involves lights, fireworks and sweets and is the most popular South Asian festival. The Times of India has called it the ‘reaffirmation of hope’.

In India, all across the country, houses and shops have already been decorated with oil lamps called diyas. In the developed world as is in many parts of India, electric lights are an attractive alternative for decoration during the festival. Sadly, electricity and access to it, remain a luxury for millions of the country’s poor. Despite improvements to the infrastructure, over 400 million people in India still lack access to electricity – namely rural households but most often, the urban poor living in India’s slums.

Electrification can hardly be seen as a mere ingredient of infrastructural development among the poor. In fact, it should be viewed as integral part of systemic strategy for improving health systems. For India’s rural poor, electrification means providing pumps to supply the villages with clean water – a necessary risk-aversion from numerous communicable disease challenges. For the country’s urban slum dwellers, it means the provision of refrigeration for vaccines at clinics. Studies have evidenced the direct correlation between electrification and health among the poor households. In Gambia and Nepal, improved access to electricity was shown to have a direct correlation with substantially reducing Acute Respiratory Illnesses (ARI) in children. In Guatemala, electrification among poor communities resulted in higher birth weights, and in South Africa, a substantial reduction in burns from paraffin poisoning was recorded.

For India’s poor, which (depending on who supplies the data) is stated to be 25, 50 or 75 percent of the population, tomorrow may not be an entirely new beginning. Electrification, if and when it does arrive will not only represent vital improvements to the country’s standard of living. For millions it will most certainly be a reaffirmation of hope that the despite their living and housing conditions, they can begin to close the gap on widening health disparities across the sub-continent.

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