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Benefiting from Hindu benevolence

Frederick Noronha

On the weekly train, the daily bus, or flights headed from Goa to Chennai, and vice versa, it’s easy to run into some passenger who is headed to that South Indian city for an unusual purpose. In this case, the purpose is to seek treatment for a complex eye ailment, treatments for which Chennai has come to be well known.

Goa has been building its own set of ophthalmology solutions, and doctors who have worked seriously in the field. But there are complications where this small State simply lacks the facilities to treat its own patients.

In such cases, going down south is one option, as quite a few patients in this state have seen. The number of such patients are more than one would first expect. When one asks around and talks to others, the gravity of the situation becomes clear.

While returning by train, a passenger from Taleigao recognised the signs of a recent eye-surgery, and a lengthy discussion ensured about the facilities in Chennai. Other people shared their experiences in going to Chennai to cope with cases of macular degeneration, retina detachments and other complications which cannot be treated in Goa currently.

In Tamil Nadu itself, one of the prominent eye-care institutions is the Arvind chain of hospitals, which is headquartered in Madurai. That hospital’s experience in attempting to make healthcare affordable to more, while improving quality and the speed of treatment, has been noticed and discussed widely, even beyond India.

Sankara Nethralaya is another prominent institution, located in Chennai, which some from Goa would have definitely encountered in their search for more complex eye treatment. Its name is a reference to Adi Sankaracharya, the eighth century Indian philosopher and theologian. Nethralaya itself means “the temple of the eye”.

The hospital describes itself as a “not-for-profit missionary institution”. On the one hand, it strikes you as an institution with a difference, but it can take you some time to realise its unusual origins and trajectory.

I asked around, and a friend in Chennai credited a prominent doctor who he said had been responsible for setting it up. It is true that S S Badrinath, now an octogenarian, was crucial in setting up Sankara Nethralaya in the 1970s. But the story of how it came about is also interesting in itself.

Online sources remind us that in 1976, when Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam or the Kanchi monastery in Kanchipuram (in Tamil Nadu), was addressing a group of doctors, he spoke of the need to create a hospital. Badrinath took the lead and had a group of philanthropists to found the not-for-profit eye hospital. It was launched in 1978.

Over the years, the seed grew vastly.

Badrinath’s own background is interesting; his parents died when he was a teenager. Their insurance money helped him complete his medical education. After gaining impressive skills in US and Canada, he returned home early and built an institution which currently touches the lives of thousands each day.

Today it runs its hospitals at five places in Chennai, at Kolkata, Rameswaram and in Andhra. It has plans for expansion into other states, and maybe other countries as well.

Over the years, it has built its expertise by treating large number of patients, while keeping costs of healthcare somewhat affordable. It offers charity services to a few poor patients, and advertises some type of cataract operations at `5000.

In terms of numbers, Sankara Nethralaya has a thousand employees, serves some 1200 patients a day, and undertakes a hundred surgeries each day. The hospital also has a thousand beds.

Because complex eye-care can be so difficult to access and costly to come by, the hospital attracts patients from other foreign countries, including in Asia and Africa.

“Today, all the patients are from Bangladesh,” one nurse was overheard telling another in one of the busy but orderly OPDs. She was not complaining; with the creation of so many skills, there is little need to fight over available resources. The nurse was just making a casual observation. Patients from all over, regardless of religion or nationality, are indeed welcome to seek treatment. There were other patients from Kenya, and tiny babies from some Islamic parts of the world, going by the clothes their mothers were wearing.

With typical Tamil politeness, and untypical efficiency for India, the hospital skillfully manages the crowds that visit it each day for some complaint or the other. Having an institution of this kind in India obviously helps so many, who would have otherwise faced the reality of getting none of the skilled treatment they so badly required.

In the hospital canteens, a South Indian rice-plate costs `55. Operations might not come cheap, but at the same time consultations can also appear to be reasonable at OPD facilities. Of course, accessing such facilities depends on where one is based.

Online, there are both very laudatory references to the work of Sankara Nethralaya, and some critical references too. But there are quite a few who have been treated there and speak highly of its facilities and
approaches.

Given its service approach, what is most interesting is that the hospital does not discriminate between diverse groups. Foreign patients seemed to be as welcome as the domestic ones. Nobody asked for lengthy identity forms before being given treatment, unlike in other spheres of life today.

In the hospital, one would barely get a hint of the religious background of the idea and the institution it created. Patients are reminded of their rights, and privileges.

In a world where religions seem to be competing against one another more in negative ways, it was indeed refreshing to note how a religious-inspired institution is showing the path in spreading kindness and humanity among various sections of the population. In some parts of India too, the Christian networks have done fairly good work in the field of healthcare. Vellore is one example. St John’s in Bengaluru is one such example, and if not mistaken, it was set up by some medical specialists and health administrators who were connected to Goa.

In Mumbai, Bandra and Andheri have prominent Christian-run hospitals. Even Borivali, increasingly a major centre for Goans to reside in since the 1990s, has seen the Karuna hospital grow from a tiny centre to a fairly prominent one, as a Borivali-West resident recently pointed out.

For some reason, while Goa has religious institutions connected to school and (some) higher education, there are very few in the field of healthcare. This is perhaps true of all religions here. It is even more true if one looks out for institutions of excellence which have been built on the model of religious philanthropy and benevolence. The few institutions that exist have not grown as one would have expected.

What is most interesting about the Sankara model is that it became possible due to a coming together of diverse forces. First of all, it was the call from the Sankaracharya, which obviously fell on fertile ground. Next, it was the response given by professionals.

Badrinath was only in his thirties when he took up this mission. Of course, all this would have not been possible had it not been for the philanthropists giving their backing.

Prominent blocks of the institution are still named after individuals like former ambassador Nani Palkhivala.

Which makes one wonder. Skill and money are critical in such ventures. But can we build without the vision?

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