Vision for Madurai and beyond – 6th day of Tata Jagriti Yatra

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On its sixth day, the Tata Jagriti Yatra arrived in Madurai, one of the oldest cities in South India. Known as the city of temples, the city is home to the famous temple dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi, built 2500 years ago. What better place to start an organisation for serving the society than this pious city with a golden history? This is where Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy or Dr. V, as he is fondly known, first built his vision. He dreamt of giving sight to millions of people and to eliminate needless blindness. The Yatris had an inside out experience of how Aravind eye care was started, the motivation behind the founding team and the impact of such a noble social mission.

The story begins in the village of Vadamapularam in South India. Dr. V grew up in a place where the only thing that children were taught was to collect sand, spread it and then write with their fingers. Apart from that, grazing cattle in the field would be the only other activity. In her documentary ‘Infinite Vision’ Director Pavithra Krishnan, records Dr. V who explains, “Nobody had ever become a doctor in my village. When I was five years old, I heard screams and cries from a house close to mine. I found out that a pregnant woman, barely twenty years old, had died in delivery. It upset me.” Dr. V joined medical school and in 1944, he joined the army as a Medical officer. A few years later, he acquired a crippling disease and was discharged by the army. He calls this sheer accident, one that led him to the eye hospital.

Dr. V had been organizing eye camps since 1961. Soon, the then government showed interest in extending these camps to rural areas. It was then that it became more of a people’s movement. Dr. V was inspired by Gandhi ji’s vision of a simple and truthful life, as also his spiritual ideas, “I worked closely with Gandhi ji. Whenever I would feel that I am not reaching his expectations, he would pull me up,” noted Dr. V in 2004. He founded Aravind Eye Care System in 1976, when he was 58 years old, an age representing retirement for most people. Initially, he would even have problems holding a pen or walking properly, due to his disease. With great perseverance and effort, he could even start performing surgeries in some time. What started with 11 beds in a mortgaged building has today grown to more than 3500 beds in hospitals in not just Madurai but also Theni, Tiruneveli, Coimbatore and Pondicherry. But Aravind is more than just about building hospitals. It is a social organisation making every possible attempt to take eye care services to the poor, free of cost or at very low price. S. Aravind, Chief Medical Officer, Aravind Eye Care system explained, “Our main aim was to reach the unreached. For this, we focused on increasing awareness, influencing health-seeking behaviour, creating access, community participation and growing the market. The opportunity and the need for eye care services was immense when we started out. Out of 45 million blind people worldwide, 12 million live in India even now. Over 80% of this blindness is needless and can be prevented or cured."

Inspired by the ideas of providing the gift of sight to the blind, Dr. V started at the age of 58, when he was suffering from a crippling disease. It would've been very easy for him to give up in the face of difficulties, but he didn't. His story is clearly one that destroys all excuses for inaction.

Apart from providing superior quality eye care support to millions, the organisation is also creating jobs for countless number of girls in their centres. It uses the training approach and attracts girls from rural areas to the tune of more than 300 girls every year.

Founding Members Speak

Post the screening of a documentary based on the works of Aravind Eye Care and a short presentation by Dr. S. Aravind, Yatris were given the opportunity to pose their questions to a panel of the Founding members of Aravind. Many questions on the technical aspects of starting and growing a social enterprise were discussed. Health sector is largely service driven and medical professionals must follow a strong code of ethics. I asked Dr. P. Namperumalsamy, one of the Founding members and Chairman Emeritus, how they could make sure that ethical practices and principles percolated down to every level. He described, “Ethics have to manifest in your systems and the way you work. When we take a new person, we play higher emphasis on values than competence, which can be built through training. Secondly, we invest a lot in orientation of employees. In some programmes, we even make the employees spend half a day with blindfold or follow a blind person. This creates the right mindset.”

A visit to the vision centres, community centres and Auro labs reinforced the scale at which this organisation is contributing to solving the problems of blindness in India today. A visit to the Vision Care centre in Sholavandam was only one of the examples of how big an impact this unified movement is making. In addition to the patients, it has changed the lives of many rural women such as Durga Das, trained and employees in the centre as a counselor. The idea behind counseling is to instill confidence and trust amongst the patients.

By the end of the day, the Yatris seemed quieter, deeperin thought and many not just had goose bumps but also tears in their eyes. I guess this is how a strong journey begins, both externally and internally.

- Unnati Narang

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