December 30, 2011 10:26 pm

Banking on better sight

Frederick Studemann on Sightsavers in action in India

On any other working day, Sanjoy Kumar Mitra would be at his desk in the cash management section of a bank, sorting foreign exchange and remittance deals. But on this morning he is in a single-storey concrete building on the fringes of a slum in Kolkata, helping to run an eye-screening session.

“We’ve been trying to create some kind of assembly line here,” explains the man from Standard Chartered, the emerging markets bank, pointing towards a snake of people who move from arrival to registration to assessment and on to counselling and treatment. Nearby, a colleague from client services is conducting sight tests; further along, another hands out medication.

Like other companies in India, Standard Chartered encourages employees to devote time to voluntary work. Mitra says the fact that he and his colleagues are in this clinic owes much to Sampa Paul and the Kolkata Urban Comprehensive Eye Care Project.

The project brings together private and charitable organisations to deliver eyecare to 1.5m people in Kolkata’s slums, which are home to about one-third of the inhabitants of this Indian metropolis.

The overcrowded shanty housing of Beleghata, where the screening is taking place, is a fairly typical case, says Paul, a project officer with the local office of Sightsavers, the development organisation that the FT is supporting in its seasonal appeal. “The men do labouring jobs, the women work as servants,” she says. “Back home they get water from a pump, use community toilets and have a non-functioning health system.”

Aparna Chakraborty, a community health worker, says that in the slum eyecare is “a major problem, affecting almost every family”. Poor vision feeds poverty as those afflicted are unable to work, or are limited in what they can do.

There is particular need, and ignorance, among women, she adds, so a lot of advocacy work is targeted at them, explaining the nature of visual impairment, the treatment available and what benefits this can bring.

Screening sessions help to raise awareness and provide a first port of call. People with serious conditions are referred for surgery. Some get more immediate treatment. As she talks, she asks an elderly man with an infected eye to move closer to the window and with calmness and precision – as a goods train trundles past overhead – syringes his tear-duct.

For Mitra and colleagues it is a world away from the bank. “I feel good at the end of the day,” he says.

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