Saving sight & changing lives in the remote Sunderbans

September 2012
the remote Sunderbans

Over 1.2 million people reached out to since 2002 and 47,000 sight restoring cataract surgeries performed

My life has changed; I could not earn money before. Now, I can take care of the cows and goats, and I repair the nets for the fisherman – Goverdhan Mahesh

Sightsavers has been working in India since 1966 to combat avoidable blindness and promote equal opportunities for disabled people. With this vision Sightsavers focuses on delivering quality eye care to the remotest areas of India, which have little or no access to healthcare.

In the Sunderbans delta in West Bengal, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, Sightsavers works with its partners to provide eye care services across 100 odd islands. The area can be traversed by ferries, the only means of transportation between islands.
Access to basic healthcare here is little or non-existent. Hence, the chances of untreated eye conditions leading to blindness are high. Blindness can be debilitating for entire families as it leads to loss of independence and dignity for the individual, and a livelihood for the family, as various members have to take care of the blind person. This in turn exacerbates poverty levels bringing down the quality of life.

The global cost of visual impairment in 2010 was estimated to be as high as nearly US$3 trillion, equating to an average of US$4,030 for every person with a visual impairment. Making it even more vital for Sightsavers to ensure access to quality eye care.

An estimated population of 18.2 million people live in the districts of 24 Parganas – North and South. Over 4 million people live in the Sunderbans alone. A very vulnerable part of the country, almost half of the population belongs to historically marginalised groups such as Scheduled Castes and Tribes and around 55% are landless labourers. More than 40% of households live below the poverty line and 13% are officially declared as the “poorest of the poor”.

Sightsavers supported intervention started here in 2002 and today covers approximately 300 villages.

The Sightsavers supported programme has been able to make significant inroads in the area providing essential eye care services. Sightsavers and its partners, Southern Health Improvement Samity (SHIS) and Sundarban Social Development Centre (SSDC), have so far:

  • Reached out to nearly 150,000 people with eye care services of whom over 60,000 are children.
  • More than 47,000 people have undergone sight restoring cataract surgery.
  • Nearly 240,000 people have been screened for refractive errors and more than 150,000 people were prescribed spectacles
  • Nearly 65,000 spectacles have been dispensed to the affected people.
  • Over 500 health workers/village level volunteers have been trained in providing basic eye care services
  • SHIS has developed a 50 bed eye hospital, providing quality eye care services and is, today, one of the major hospitals in eye care here
  • SSDC initiated its own eye care unit in 2005 with Sightsavers support. It has since carried out almost 25,000 cataract surgeries

Linking up closely with government programmes too has given added impetus to Sightsavers’ intervention in the islands.

  • The Government of West Bengal has been supporting cataract surgeries under the National Programme for Control of Blindness (NPCB).
  • Sightsavers has been enabling the training of Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and Anganwadi (crèche) workers on primary eye health.
  • Formation of eye care committees in the villages which are integrated with the Village Health Committees.

Ms. Elizabeth Kurian, CEO Sightsavers (India) said, “We and our partners in the Sunderbans delta are working relentlessly to ensure people have essential access to the eye care services they need, including much needed sight-restoring surgeries and correction for refractive error, which together are responsible for 80 per cent of blindness in India. These sight-restoring treatments are inexpensive yet life changing and their impact are tangible.

We are grateful to the IAPB for giving us this opportunity to present to you the impact of our work and for helping raise awareness that avoidable blindness can be eliminated.”

About Sightsavers

Sightsavers is a global development organisation working to eliminate avoidable blindness and to ensure that people who are irreversibly blind receive the support they need to lead lives of independence and dignity.

Sightsavers has been working in India since 1966 on eye health and has reached out to over 35 million people.

Today, we work with partner organisations across major states in India bringing eye healthcare, educational support, counselling, training and leadership development to visually impaired people in some of the least served areas of the country.

We work in a sustainable way to promote lasting change – by strengthening existing health systems, seeking to advocate with and influence governments and by demonstrating best practises. We network with like-minded organisations to enable exchange of ideas and to advocate for the rights of the disabled.

Sightsavers believes in promoting indigenous technologies in eye healthcare enabling a wider reach of health services in India.


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