A team of doctors and volunteers in rural Bihar show that with determination and community effort it is possible to eradicate blindness…

October was the busiest month for United Nations commemorative days. There were 16 in total, including World Sight Day when representatives from large international organisations gathered in Switzerland to raise awareness about blindness.

Meanwhile, rural Bihar, which had the worst blindness problem in the world 10 years ago, is still the place on our planet with the most people unnecessarily blind. The good news is that this state now boasts one of the best success stories related to restoring sight. It involves not just a hospital but entire communities.

There is an island in the middle of the Ganga in Bihar 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 stepped up its action in the weeks leading up to World Sight Day in mid October. Its aim was to cure every single person who was blind from cataract on Sitab-diara and a quarter of all the diara islands in Bihar. Why? Because if blind people in the most inaccessible areas could be reached, then we would all feel more confident of eradicating blindness from the entire state.

This project was centred around the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital. The AJEH is only five years old and located in a tiny village 20 kilometres from an electricity source. But it is now the state's largest eye hospital with two satellite eye units and a formidable outreach programme. It is a minor miracle that the hospital is still functioning. Three months after its establishment, its main financial backer, an international NGO, pulled out of a two year agreement. But with massive community support the hospital was able to survive and now employs hundreds and is aided by hundreds more volunteers. Almost unheard of in rural Bihar, they have managed to recruit and retain a team of highly experienced eye surgeons.

The AJEH is run by Kolkata businessman Mritunjay Tiwary whose ancestral village is close to Mastichak, the village in which the hospital is located.

The very day the idea of tackling the diara islands was conceived, Tiwary summoned the key outreach workers. 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 possible by wading in neck-deep water! They adapted their plans accordingly.

Enthusiastic volunteers

Former priest Shashi Kant Dwivedi, who became an outreach worker after his own diara became the very first to be visited by the hospital team, told me: “I can do more good work being an outreach worker than as a priest.”

Farmer Awadh Rai, aged 55, was once blind himself. After cataract surgery at the AJEH he became one of their many Protectors of Sight, going from door-to-door collecting patients with sight problems.

The Diara Push was a huge success. Over 3,600 blind men, women and children were brought in for cataract surgery. And the AJEH are also addressing many of the UN Millennium Development Goals with other innovative and imaginative schemes. The Akhand Jyoti Football Academy is a scheme for village girls which provides nutritious food, school fees, organised football training, English and IT classes, and work experience at the hospital. Poverty drives most families in rural Bihar to marry off their daughters by the age of 15; they are pregnant by 18, 70 per cent severely anaemic and two thirds illiterate. It is no surprise that the alternative life and opportunities the Football Academy gives to them has received full backing from parents. Some of the girls will be taken onto a Diploma of Ophthalmic Technicians Course (DOT) when they complete their schooling. This will mean a guaranteed job at the eye hospital for the girls, and a source of future paramedics for a rapidly expanding hospital.

Fifteen-year-old Sushma Kumari was supposed to have been married last year. But her father cancelled her marriage after she became part of the Football Academy. A few months later he became an eye patient himself. When he came into the hospital he found his own daughter on one of her work experience mornings. It was she who tested his vision. The proud father wept. Said Sushma: “Getting involved with the hospital is the best thing in my life.”

Years ago Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunnus shocked an American journalist by suggesting that, if he were President of the World Bank, he would relocate their headquarters to Dhaka. Yunnus writes about this in his book Banker to the Poor:

The overarching objective of the World Bank is to combat world poverty, then it seems to me that the Bank should move to a location where poverty is rampant. In Dhaka the Bank would be surrounded by human suffering and destitution. By living in close proximity to the problem, I believe the Bank would solve the problem much faster and more realistically.

I feel exactly the same way about blindness. It is rural Bihar and Orissa that remain the worst places in the world for blindness. The experts to deal with this are not in Geneva, London, Mumbai or Madurai. The knowledge, skills, passion and commitment are right there amongst the people who would benefit most from the problem being solved. We just have to learn to listen to them. Which is why I spend a great deal of time in the villages of both states, with the likes of Tiwary, Awadh Rai, and 15-year-old girls who play football. And we are winning. Not just on the football pitch.