World Sight Day Has To Mean Something…say those most closely involved with the blind in the country with the worst blindness problem.
— There is an island in the middle of the river Ganges in the north Indian state of Bihar. It is known as Sitab-diara. It is one of the most inaccessible places in India, which is why, in the days when kidnapping was rampant in this impoverished and neglected state, victims were kept prisoner on Sitab-diara until their ransoms were paid.
Things have changed for the good in Bihar. At least as far as law and order is concerned. Macho men with elaborate moustaches astride galloping horses are still seen on Sitab-diara. But instead of guarding kidnap victims they are now more likely to be contributing to a spectacular campaign to eradicate blindness. This unique project will step up its action over the next few weeks to achieve their most ambitious target yet: to wipe out cataract blindness from Sitab-diara and a quarter of all the islands known as the diara which total around 273. All this by World Sight Day October 14, 2010.
The project is centred around the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital, only five years-old and located in a tiny village but now the state’s largest eye hospital with two satellite eye units.This year alone they will restore sight to over 25,000 people. The hospital employs local people and makes use of hundreds of volunteers. It has massive community support amongst some of India’s poorest citizens. It is run by Kolkata businessman Mritunjay Tiwary whose ancestral village is close to Mastichak, the village in which the hospital is located.
“We saw on the internet the plans to celebrate World Sight Day 2010 with a huge conference in Geneva, celebrity endorsements and the like. This has no relevance for us.”
In agreement with Tiwary is British Ophthalmologist Lucy Mathen who runs the small charity Second Sight. Second Sight’s volunteer eye surgeons and non-medical professionals work closely with hospitals in rural Bihar and Orissa, operating, training, teaching English and funding equipment and surgery.
Said Dr.Mathen: “Ten years ago I set up Second Sight, fired up by the launching of the initiative Vision 2020 A Right to Sight by the WHO and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. What a brilliant idea I thought. To rid the planet of blindness by the year 2020. But when I read the Vision 2020 website now my heart sinks. Viewed from rural Bihar, it looks like an electronic beauty contest with all the super models of the so-called sight saving world on parade.Thankfully, here we are surrounded by blind patients who are a constant reminder of what it is all about.”
Tiwary and Mathen came up with the idea of commemorating World Sight Day 2010 (the halfway mark of the Vision 2020 deadline) with their most ambitious target yet. If they could wipe out blindness from the most inaccessible diara islands by October 14, they would feel confident of eradicating blindness in the entire state over the next ten years.
“We called a meeting of the outreach workers who cover the diara area. Within a few hours they had planned which islands to target, including the once notorious Kidnap Island. They were so excited by the plan that they went out that night to investigate weather conditions. They discovered that some of the diara were still flooded because of monsoon rains so access to them was only by wading neck-deep in water! They adapted their plans accordingly.”
Even in good weather, most diara can only be reached by jeep or tonga down to the edge of the river Ganges and then in small wooden boats to cross the water. The inhabitants of some diara have never crossed the river themselves. Former priest Shashi Kant Dwivedi became an outreach worker for the hospital after his own diara became the very first to be visited by the hospital team.
“I can do more good work being an outreach worker than as a priest,” he said.
Local farmer Awadh Rai, aged 55, was once blind himself. After cataract surgery at the Akhand Jyoti he became one of their many Protectors of Sight. He undertakes to collect as many patients as he can from his own area who have sight problems. The hospital’s trained ophthalmic staff then arrange mega-screening camps.
Other members of the extensive network of volunteers helping the hospital include
Sushma Kumari, aged 15, a young girl who should have been married last year. Child marriage is standard in rural Bihar where families cannot afford to pay school fees and think that marrying their daughters off young at least provides for them. Sushma joined the Akhand Jyoti Football Academy (an Education Through Football scheme run by the eye hospital) and her father agreed to cancel her marriage. She now gets work experience at the hospital and hopes to train on their ophthalmic assistants’ course when she is old enough.
“Getting involved with the hospital is the best thing in my life,” said Sushma.
Madhu Singh, the former vice-captain of the Indian women’s national team, coaches girls like Sushma who are part of the Akhand Jyoti Football Academy.
“This is more than just football,” she said. “We are all involved in everything the eye hospital does. It makes me very proud to be from Bihar. No target is beyond us.”
Irshad Ahmed is the Imam of Mastichak.
“I have been told that 80% of Muslims in the villages of our state live below the poverty line. If they are blind this makes the problem worse. We must all do all we can to solve this problem.”
Julie Parveen, aged 14, comes from a poor Muslim family. Her first love is football. But her mother is adamant that the she wants the girls to join the eye hospital in the future.
City auditor Himanshu Ashar leaves his thriving Mumbai practise every three months to travel to Mastichak. He offers his services to the hospital free of charge and has no doubt that they will meet their World Sight Day target.
“This hospital is having a social impact disproportionate to its spending,” he said. “If every organisation working towards the elimination of blindness in India were as effective we would not be the country with the worst blindness problem.”
Irish optometrist Roisin Cox, visiting the Akhand Jyoti to train ophthalmic assistants remarked:
“It is incredible to think that they do all this without any electricity within ten miles. The whole place is run on 24hour generators.”
Eye surgeon Dr.Ajeet Kumari Dwivedi said of the World Sight Day target: “I am prepared to operate on as many patients as necessary.”
Dr.Ajeet is part of a team of seven full-time and seven part-time ophthalmologists. Some of the surgeons routinely perform three-minute cataract operations.
Only one person seems slightly concerned about the campaign to eradicate blindness from the diara, 90 year-old Ramesh Chandra Shukla, who started the charitable trust which runs the hospital.
“Give me some work to do,” he pleads with Mritunjay Tiwary. “Everyone is working so hard. Let me do some work.”
Source: Press release distribution via India PRwire
Notes to Editor
About Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital
Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital is a Non Profit Organisation run by professionals under the aegis of Yugrishi Shriram Sharma Acharya Charitable Trust, Mastichak, Patna. In a span of 4 years It has achieved a SURGERY CAPACITY of 400 Surgeries per day to become the Largest Eye hospital in Bihar.
The hospital, boasts of the most modern Equipments and infrastructure comparable to the best in BIHAR, but sitruated in the middle of the most rural area of Bihar and catering to the poorest of the poor. Being in an area without any Electricity supply and being around 70 Kms from Patna city, the hospital is run entirely on GenSets for providing uninterrupted Electric Supply for all parts of the hospital including a full fledged Operating Theatre of international standards.
For more information, please contact:
Himanshu Ashar (Chartered Accountant) (L) 022-26104460, (M) 9322446464, (F) 022-26136464
Mritunjay Tiwary (Trustee and Project Head) (M) 09934752812