An end in sight: How attitudes towards cataracts are finally changing in India

Removing cataracts is a routine operation in the UK. Not so in the Indian state of Bihar, where circumstance has left more than a million people needlessly sightless. On the eve of World Sight Day, the photographer Sophie Gerrard tells Hugh Montgomery about her work in the area and the slowly changing situation
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The Independent Online

The restoration of sight may once have been the stuff of miracles, but nowadays it's the stuff of cold, hard global inequality. On one hand, in the UK, the lens-clouding condition of cataracts is routinely treated with a 20-minute operation; on the other, in the north-east Indian state of Bihar, they leave one million people needlessly without vision.

Working for the charities Second Sight and the Savitri Waney Charitable Trust, the photographer Sophie Gerrard visited Bihar to document the work being done to redress the balance. Shots from her photo journal "Becoming Clearer" are showcased here to mark World Sight Day this Thursday. "Bihar has suffered for decades from poor governance, leading to a massive lack of education and healthcare," says Gerrard. "More than 70 per cent of the population live in rural areas and, on average, they live on 15 rupees (21p) a day. If you're blind, you need someone to take you to hospital, which can be two work days lost – they can't afford it."

Gerrard focused on two hospitals part-funded by the charities, including Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital, founded in 2005 in the small village of Mastichak by Calcuttan businessman Mritunjay Tiwary. Now populated by some of India's top surgeons, it serves 25,000 people a year. "They'd operate on two people at a time. One person would be lying down being operated on, then they'd be ushered out, the surgeon would spin round and deal with the next guy. But it was very professional."

While the series paints an inspirational portrait of medical enterprise, it also highlights what could be done with more funding. "There are one or two more hospitals like this in the state, but it's a population of 100 million. It doesn't get the attention, because it's not developed like the south, but this is where the main [cataract] problem is. More NGOs are going there now, but it needs a lot more consideration."

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