In 2005, a poor farmer, supported by his 10-year-old daughter, painstakingly made his way to the district hospital in Chapraspur, Bihar. His vision, which had been deteriorating for the last seven years, had finally given way two years ago, severely hampering his ability to earn a living. His daughter had been forced to drop out of school to look after him. All hopes now were pinned on the district hospital.
Yet, on reaching the hospital, the farmer and his daughter were turned away; the hospital had no eye surgeons.
“That day, I went back home and researched blindness in Bihar,” said Mritunjay Tiwary, who had witnessed the dejected farmer make his way back home. “I learnt that there were more than a million blind people in the state. Cataracts were a leading cause of blindness and a simple small surgery could help them see again.”
Tiwary had, until then, rarely ventured out of cities: “For me, the barometer of the success of the nation was the Bombay Stock Exchange. I was completely unaware about the other India,” he says. But a chance visit to Kishanganj left him shaken. “I was struck by the extreme poverty that was forcing some parents to sell their daughters, sometimes for as low as Rs. 1100.”
Tiwary decided he wanted to do some good and create an impact. Seeing the blind farmer helped him decide:
“I felt I couldn’t solve all of Bihar’s problems on my own. I needed to focus on one problem, and I decided to start with curable blindness.”
Tiwary started the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital in 2006, in Mastichak. What started as a small ten-bed hospital has, over the years, grown to become the third largest hospital in India. It is a source of hope and joy to the thousands who walk through its doors every year.
The hospital charges only 20% of its patients, offering free treatment and surgeries to the remaining 80%.
Despite the fact that the hospital was transforming the lives of thousands and their families, the image of the little girl who was forced to drop out of school and look after her blind father continued to haunt Tiwari: “It kept nagging at me. That and the fact that in a lot of places in Bihar, girls are still being sold. I wanted to do something for them.”
Inspiration for his next initiative struck when Tiwari chanced upon a few girls kicking a crumpled piece of paper around:
“I asked them what they were doing and they said that they were playing football. I was surprised. I asked them how they knew about football and they said ‘We go to the roof of our school and see the boys playing on the football field.’”
The girls hadn’t ventured out onto the field because nobody would allow them to play.
“That’s when I realised that in such a strong patriarchal society, we need something to jolt people from their sleep. And what could do that better than girls wearing shorts and playing football on the field?” says Tiwari.
Banking on the goodwill the hospital had built over the years, Tiwari set out on the tough task of convincing parents to let their daughters come out and play football.
“It was not easy. People felt that I was trying to shake the system. I started getting a lot of threats and was even given police protection,” he recalls, “But I persevered. I knew deep down that what I was doing was right, so I refused to step back.”
Tiwari used education as a bargaining chip: “I told them that if they let their daughters play football, I would bear the entire cost of their education.”
It worked. It took Tiwari six months to convince the family of the first student, but in time more girls and their families began to step forward and participate in the programme.
The role of sports in personality development has been well-documented, and these girls were no exception. On the football field, they transformed from shy and meek girls into confident young women.
As 19 year-old Suman, a beneficiary of the programme, said: “Nobody can ever take me away from football because for me, it’s more than a game; it is the chance to reclaim my life and my identity.”
Over the years, the programme has benefitted more than 140 girls, with two of them even making it to the India Under-17 Championships.
But Tiwari was only just getting started.
“What I realized was that football as a sport will not be able to guarantee a living because women’s sports are not very popular in India,” he explains. “When these girls come in, if we are not able to give them a guaranteed career, then the whole thing will be a step back.”
With the hospital’s growing popularity, Tiwari also realised the need for increased support staff.
“We thought, why not have a programme wherein these girls get into the hospital system? Because we need optometrists, we need the support staff and we also want to give the girls guaranteed career options.”
In 2009, Tiwari launched the optometrist training programme. Girls from the football programme who had completed Class 12, would move on to the training programme. In addition to training in optometry, the programme included training in English and apprenticeships under senior optometrists.
After the training, most girls are recruited by the hospital. “But they also have the option of choosing to work anywhere in India since they are now qualified optometrists,” says Tiwari.
So far, the programme has trained and employed 33 girls, with many more still undergoing training.
The average family income of most of these girls is around Rs. 2,000. As certified optometrists, their starting salary jumps significantly to Rs. 25,000 a month. The financial security their jobs give them helps them lift their families out of poverty.
“But the most important factor is that they are dreaming and they are dreaming big,” says Tiwari.
Tiwari also believes that the only way to create a lasting impact and to break out of the stronghold of a patriarchal society is to create an entire generation of women role models who go on to empower more girls and create more role models.
“It is not merely a football programme, not merely an optometrist programme, not merely a blindness programme – it is about creating girl role models en masse at the grassroots level,” he says.
The Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital – like all of Tiwari’s initiatives – has made an indelible impact on the lives of many. Till date, the hospital has treated more than 15 lakh patients.
By 2020, Tiwari wants the hospital to become the number one eye hospital in India. But that is not all: “I want it to be run by a rural girl from Bihar,” he concludes.
First published by The Better India