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The unusual case of Aravind

Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty
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BOOKMARK In “Infinite Vision”, Pavithra K. Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy put between covers an extraordinary story of one man’s zeal which gave the world an exemplary business model based on compassion,writes Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

V for VisionFormer President APJ Abdul Kalam presenting Dr. B.C. Roy National Award to Dr. G. Venkataswamy. (Right) Pavithra K. Mehta and Suchitra ShenoyFile Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
V for VisionFormer President APJ Abdul Kalam presenting Dr. B.C. Roy National Award to Dr. G. Venkataswamy. (Right) Pavithra K. Mehta and Suchitra ShenoyFile Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Pavithra K. Mehta, co-author of Infinite Vision , says the book was preordained. “I came across an entry in his diary after his death. It was dated 2002, much before Infinite Vision was a seed in my mind. In it, he foretold the writing of a book about Aravind by me. Now, more than a decade later, I can say that he was stunningly right about this, just as he was about so many things,” she says.

Pavithra here is referring to late ophthalmologist Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, her grand uncle, known to many as Dr. V., a visionary who through his Madurai-based eye care foundation, Aravind, created an amazing business model based on compassion. The 300-odd pager Infinite Vision , which Pavithra has co-authored with Suchitra Shenoy and published recently by Harper Collins India, documents the life and work of Dr. V. who over the last three decades treated over 32 million patients and performed over 4 million surgeries, the majority for free. The Aravind model is emulated in many countries including the United States; a case study on its work is mandatory reading for every MBA student at the prestigious Harvard Business School.

In an email interview from Madurai, Pavithra bricks together the making of the book. She recalls getting drawn to the singularity of his work after her return from the U.S. in 2002. “His revolutionary approach to service delivery to everyone, from barefoot farmers to the President of the country…a place where patients can choose whether to pay or not yet keeps the organisation dazzlingly profitable.”

Pavithra joined Aravind, tried to understand how Dr. V. came so close to achieving the dream of his youth — eliminating curable blindness — by starting post retirement at 58 with no money, no business plan or safety net and with fingers damaged by rheumatoid arthritis. Primarily a writer and filmmaker, she ended up making an award-winning documentary on his work. The film turned out to be a springboard for the book.

“The book unfolded as part of a long, organic exploration of the Aravind story. Between 2003 and 2004, I directed the documentary, also titled Infinite Vision . The audiences were deeply inspired by the 35-minute film but were also churning with questions that all began with: ‘But how is it possible?’ It soon became clear that there was much more to this multi-layered story that needed to be explored,” states Pavithra.

She began archiving Aravind’s stories by conducting interviews with key people across the organisation besides going through Dr. V.’s diaries, about a hundred of them written from the 1960s till his death in 2006.

Pavithra knows, with time, the memory of individuals and institutions fade. “Stories then are important because they can be a timeless vehicle for values. They can help shape and sustain core beliefs about how we do what we do, and why. So I wanted Aravind’s story to be told in a way that allowed its deepest truths to be passed on,” she says.

By “a lovely stroke of serendipity”, Pavithra met Suchitra in 2005. In the six following years, the duo put together Dr V’s struggles and breakthroughs including production of cost-efficient lenses which made a huge difference in offering low cost diagnosis to lakhs of patients. So also how he could offer “50-60 per cent of treatment for free or at highly subsidised prices and 40-50 per cent at a range of market prices.”

Since the 1990s, Aravind’s training institute, LAICO, has worked with over 200 hospitals across India. “About 15 per cent of all Indian ophthalmologists have trained at Aravind. So parts of its model and training are to be found in other parts of India. LAICO also works with partner hospitals in more than 29 countries,” says Suchitra.

The duo underlines made Dr. V succeed despite starting without money. “He made it possible by dint of three things — starting power: he showed up 100 per cent to begin the work that he was meant to do; staying power: he and his team worked diligently, patiently and persistently day after day, decade after decade; subtle power: when you acknowledge the presence and significance of the invisible in our lives, rather than being herded by the obvious, you tune into underlying forces.”

(“Infinite Vision” is being released in paperback this April.)

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