BY LAUREN PURNELL
Lauren Purnell is a second-year International Development student at SAIS.
“Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” was not just advice pushed by Benjamin Franklin, it was a necessity given the absence of light and entertainment once the sun went down in the 18th century. Before the advent of electricity, which ironically Benjamin Franklin discovered, people around the world followed his advice not by choice but due to a lack of better options. This was the case up until recently in rural India, where less than half of households had access to electricity in the year 2000. Advances in electricity provision in the last fifteen years have brought power to homes in rural areas, where now 74 percent of households have electricity. With the steady expansion of electricity to rural areas, many are left wondering how this will change people’s lifestyles in rural India. However, contrary to what Benjamin Franklin believed, the ability to use electricity to stay up later may actually lead to healthier, wealthier, and wiser men and women.
Studies in rural households in India show that access to electricity allows individuals to change their schedules in ways that allow them to be more productive and save time. One study examined the difference in how access to electricity changed behavior for men and women. Before electricity, men would generally take a break in the day to socialize with friends, but with the introduction of electricity, the study holds men could socialize at night and spend the entire day working. Similarly, women had more time for productive work, as they no longer needed to spend excessive amounts of time collecting wood for fuel. In addition to that, the powered lights allowed women to work on other projects at night. How electricity allowed women to rearrange their social lives was missing from this World Bank paper, but both men and women were shown to be wealthier thanks to access to power.
Electrification has also had a positive impact on the lives of children, especially girls. Since mothers now have more time to devote to other activities, they are more willing to send their daughters to school rather than keeping them home to work. Additionally, another study found that having well-lit spaces at night increased the amount of time girls and boys were able to spend studying, which improved their performance in school. Children are not the only people becoming wiser as a result of electricity. Other studies have shown that women absorb important information on nutrition for their families, as well as family planning, using that new knowledge to transform their lives.
However, there is less evidence to show that electricity has made men and women in rural India healthier. Electricity lays the ground work so that families can switch from kerosene stoves that pollute the insides of their homes to smokeless electric stoves, but currently the cost of switching to electric stoves is simply too high for most rural Indian households. Nevertheless, electricity in rural India has brought changes that have led to improved incomes and education levels of households. Contrary to Bejamin Franklin's advice, the ability to stay up later has allowed families to earn more income, become better educated, and may lead to improved health outcomes.