Banking with a vision

Madhusmita Hazarika/OneWorld South Asia

The statistics speak for themselves: 285 million people are visually impaired worldwide, with 39 million blind and 246 million with low vision. About 90 per cent of the world’s visually impaired live in the developing countries. In India alone, there are around 15 million blind people.

As a part of its CSR initiative, Standard Chartered launched a much-needed ‘Seeing is Believing’ (SiB) programme in India in 2003. The initiative takes eye care treatment out to the poor, and under-privileged through the community-based primary vision centres. The initiative has since its inception made a considerable difference to the lives of many people who are plagued by avoidable blindness- one of the most common forms of blindness in India.

The initiative, which is a collaborative effort between the Standard Chartered Bank and the International Agency for Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) has already benefitted over three million people in India, by providing eye care services through 74 vision centers across 10 states.

Among its many vision centres, the busiest is the Dr Shroff Primary Eye Care Centre in Delhi’s Jehangirpuri area, this vision centre is one of the five under the SiB programme which takes primary eye care to people who cannot afford it.

“Screening camps earlier had a limitation of being able to stay in touch with the patients, particularly in cases where post operative eye-care was required. However, with the setting up of vision centers under SiB, we now are more accessible to our patients, and they to us,” says Anurag Mishra, Project Officer with Dr Shroff’s Charity Eye Hospital.

Patients from nearby economically weaker neighbourhoods throng the clinic. Each waits in a line at a small reception area before being ushered into the check-up room. Many like Mahinder Kaur have come all the way from Indore to stay with her daughter, who stays in Jehangirpuri, to have a cataract operation in her second eye. Her first cataract operation took place last month. Others, like Pushp Lata, come to the centre dissatisfied by the service of the government hospital. “The doctors were good in the Government hospital. But there was a lot of rush in there. So, I have come here,” she says. Along with them, Pritam Kaur is going for her first cataract operation.

Ritika M James is the centre’s vision technician and conducts screenings for eye-health of the patients, advises refractive corrections, provides glasses and does referrals for serious cases. She and field worker Simran, often go out into the communities on a regular basis for health awareness outreach, screening camps and advocacy efforts.

This also includes meeting up with local community leaders, municipal councilors and interacting with other NGOs with whom they collaborate from time to time.

“The initial challenge, when we went to the field, was that we did not have much experience of counseling patients. Our challenge was how to counsel and convince the community members to come for eye – test screenings, as the understanding and awareness on eye health was low amongst the people. Today, after a period of two years, people are becoming aware,” James said.

Over the past two years, 6,000 patients have been treated at the Jehangirpuri Vision Centre. Of these, 260 cataract operations have been conducted in 2012. “Without the vision centres it would not have been possible to have the kind of impact we today have in the community,” says Mishra. “The SiB programme has been very helpful.”

Karuna Bhatia, Head of Sustainability - India & South Asia, Corporate Affairs at Standard Chartered Bank, Mumbai, says: “In India an investment of $4.8 million has already been made, and with the programme’s success the bank is looking at new areas for possible expansion of the programme. In the upcoming phase, SCB has committed an additional amount of $1 million to the fifth phase of the ‘Seeing is Believing’ programme.”

Around the world, visual impairment - which is avoidable in most cases - impacts the health and quality of life of millions of people. It is also believed to cause lost of productivity at $200 billion annually. This programme address es the situation by not just restoring sight, but also enabling many to go back and play a more active role in their community.