SINGAPORE, Singapore — In an article published by the World Economic Forum, Tej Kohli, the chairman of Kohli Ventures, shares that blindness and poverty mutually reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. The tragedy is that the leading cause of blindness for those living in poverty, cataracts, is easily treatable. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Mritunjay Tiwary, founder of Akhand Jyoti, elaborates on the organization’s mission to address curable blindness in the Indian state of Bihar.
Eye Care in Low-Income Countries
In low-income countries, limited access to affordable eye care causes cataracts to devolve into full-blown blindness. Yet, the positive externalities of providing affordable eye care would significantly outweigh the potential costs of doing so. Studies indicate that the economic productivity of a person suffering from cataracts can increase by as much as “1500% of the cost of the surgery during the first postoperative year.” When one accounts for the non-monetary benefits, such as improved self-esteem and personal freedom, restoring eyesight is priceless.
With such clear socio-economic advantages, the importance of alleviating blindness is undeniable. However, for the Indian nonprofit Akhand Jyoti, the relationship between poverty and blindness is more than just an axiom. It is a clarion call to address a pressing need in one of India’s most impoverished states: Bihar.
Blindness in Bihar
The following five facts illustrate the severity of blindness in Bihar:
- There are approximately 700,000 blind persons in Bihar.
- A further 4.3 million individuals have a visual impairment.
- Another 100,000 citizens in Bihar “become blind each year due to ageing.”
- Cataracts are the leading cause of 83% of blindness incidences.
- Specilists perform only 141,000 corrective eye surgeries per annum.
The barriers to curing blindness in Bihar are immense. These hurdles include low incomes, a shortage of skilled medical professionals and inadequate infrastructure, hindering accessibility for patients and doctors. Fortunately, despite the tremendous odds, Akhand Jyoti serves as a light in the darkness for the Indian state, with the bold mission to eradicate curable blindness in Bihar by the year 2026. The organization’s two-pronged approach to fighting against blindness and alleviating poverty holds considerable potential to radically transform Bihar’s rural landscape.
The First Prong: Providing Eye Care
In an article published by The Better India, Akhand Jyoti’s founder, Mritunjay Tiwary, relays his experience of witnessing a blind elderly farmer, “supported by his 10-year-old daughter,” being turned away from a district hospital as the hospital did not have an eye surgeon. This event would inspire Tiwary to establish the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital (AJEH) in 2006. Since its inception, the organization has reached out to the most underprivileged in Bihar, prioritizing individuals who are bilaterally blind.
It accomplishes this through its “unique outreach program,” in which the hospital’s outreach teams go door-to-door in Bihar’s remotest villages, identifying villagers who have curable blindness and require urgent eye care. Hopital-owned vehicles then transport villagers to the hospital’s surgical centers, allowing them to circumvent the state’s infrastructural deficiencies.
Tiwary shares that “the efforts of Akhand Jyoti are so well known that among the people of Bihar there is a saying: where no-one goes, Akhand Jyoti goes.” Indeed, AJEH’s efforts are awe-inspiring. The hospital performs more than 62,000 corrective eye surgeries annually, 80% of which are free, improving the quality of life of more than 12.6 million disadvantaged people.
The Second Prong: Female Empowerment
In addition to providing transformational eye care, Akhand Jyoti commits to empowering young women, especially from rural areas, through its trademarked Football to Eyeball education program. By encouraging girls to play football, the organization aims to prove that gender stereotypes “can be overcome for the better.”
As part of the program, the girls have the opportunity to receive an education and participate in vocational training to become optometrists or junior doctors. Upon completing their education and training, AJEH offers the girls jobs, allowing them to achieve financial independence, break free from the cycle of poverty and contribute to the cause of eradicating curable blindness.
For Tiwary, the promotion of gender inequality and the subversion of patriarchal norms that are deeply entrenched in Bihar serve as inviolable pillars of the organization. He notes that the pedagogy behind the Football to Eyeball program aims to serve the larger purpose of inspiring societal change. He explains that the orgaization’s “effort is not to create X number of optometrists but to create social change agents and more local role models in our society.”
The best part is that the program has gained acceptance and support among the girls’ parents. Tiwary recalls the time when “the first batch of optometrists was about to pass out in 2013.” The organization was “confident that the majority of parents would” wish for their daugters to marry immediately and abandon their careers. To Tiwary’s surprise, the parents were accepting of the girls marrying later in life, indicating that “the mindset is slowly changing.”
The Road Ahead
For Akhand Jyoti, great optimism paves the road ahead. Tiwary shares that AJEH is on track to eradicating curable blindness in Bihar by 2026. The organization will also begin the construction of a new hospital in October 2021. “Over the next three years, we foresee us going from 75,000 surgeries a year to 250,000,” says Tiwary. However, he includes an important caveat: “when you say curable blindness, always remember blindness is a problem in both eyes.” This means the first goal is “that by 2026 there will be no person in Bihar who can be considered ‘blind’ because the visual impairment in at least one eye will be corrected.” The organization strongly believes that it is “on track to seeing this goal through.”
In conclusion, Tiwary highlights that going forward, three things are essential to address blindness and poverty, not just in Bihar but in the country at large. They include revamping medical education, greater investment in infrastructure and a predilection for policies specifically targeting low-income and marginalized communities. Time will reveal whether such changes will materialize. Until then, it is clear that Akhand Jyoti will continue to lead the fight against blindness in Bihar.
– Vyas Nageswaran
Photo: Akhand Jyoti Blog