India has the largest population of blind people in the world. Most of them live in the poorest parts of the country with little or no access to even basic health care facilities. Do you know that 80 per cent of them (9.6 million) could have been prevented from going blind if they had received timely treatment? But poverty – which is both a cause and effect of blindness – can be very hard to break out of, especially in the rural areas where most blind people live.
The Antyodaya Chetana Mandal, a non-profit welfare organization, has set up the Mahatma Gandhi Eye Hospital in the remote tribal village of Rangamatia in Odisha. The hospital serves a population of four million in the districts of Mayurbhanj, Balasore, Bhadrak and Keonjhar in North Odisha as well as needy ones from neighboring states of Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of blindness. Poverty and blindness reinforce each other, contributing to increased vulnerability and exclusion. The majority of blind people are deprived of going to school, obtaining work, and enjoying family and social life.
It is estimated that 90% of India’s blind population live in rural and remote areas and 80% of these cases are avoidable. In addition, children represent 43% of the regional population. The vast majority of India’s rural populations have no access to eye health care. Lack of awareness coupled with absence of proper medical services is pushing the poor tribals into the realm of darkness. Handicapped by loss of sight, the blind cease to be productive members of the society and become a burden for their families and society at large. For the he poor tribals, who can barely scrape together the bus fare to the city, blindness is accepted as fate or the will of God.
The Mahatma Gandhi Eye Hospital is a symbol of ‘Gram Swaraj’- the basic value premise of Mahatma Gandhi. For the poor Santals who cannot afford the expenses for going to cities for treatment, the eye hospital is a boon. In its sixteen years of dedicated service, it has proved itself as a premier eye care institution in North Odisha. Set up in an Ashramic environment, the hospital has even reached the door step of the needy ones in remotest parts with the help of its outreach screening camps.
The sylvan surroundings of the hospital, set up amidst a forest, helps the patients to feel at ease during their first hospital encounter. The poor Santals are usually very afraid of surgery; the hospital setting helps them to relax. Patients are away from home for two days, guided into the hospital blind, and walk out unaided, able to see.
Aditya Patnaik, who founded the hospital in 2000, is a Gandhian who has lived and worked with Vinoba Bhave. He has worked with and for the tribals and adivasis for decades. Patnaik believes that ignorance is the prime reason leading to high density blindness in rural areas. Hence apart from curative measures in the hospital; he also campaigns for generating awareness among the poor tribals. “For the Santals, it is income generation that comes first, then education, then water and sanitation, health is last,” says Patnaik.
He proudly reels off the figures achieved in the 16 years of existence. Over 600,000 patients have been treated in the hospital’s OPD and more than 90,000 visually impaired patients have retained their vision through cataract surgeries at the hospital. By means of high quality modern instruments and equipment, as well as high commitment and sincerity, the eye hospital has become the apex eye care institution in North Odisha.
Though the Government has many blindness prevention programs conceived which are well intended, these efforts, serve only to temporarily reduce the current backlog of blindness. It is only when these efforts are accompanied by support measures from NGO’s and other groups that effective much-needed care with a long-lasting impact is felt. Most of these programmes need to be linked with other development programs, such as education and child and maternal health.
There is a need to extend health care facilities to rural masses in order to cover the vast majority of the population. In India, health care facilities are distributed in such a way that 80% of facilities are available in urban areas and 20% in rural areas, where as the population distribution is vice versa: approximately 20% of the people are urban and 80% are rural.
India has now entered the elite trillion dollar GDP group of countries. The visible signs of economic progress augur well for a brighter future for the visually impaired in the country. The Mahatma Gandhi Eye Hospital truly epitomizes the principle of the Antyodaya.
“As for me, I have been spending a couple of days every year at the Eye hospital in Rangamatia. I look forward to my visit to the place and the nearby abandoned World War II airbase. As a guest of Aditya Patnaik, I stay at the small guest house where the former Vice President Krishna Kant spent the night when he inaugurated the hospital in 2000. The two schools that the ACM runs near the hospital impart a different kind of education system which encourages and inspires the Adivasi students through positive experiences in body, mind and soul. The children learn through the values of natural environment which supports their health, learning process and emotional well-being.”