CHANGE leaders do great things, and often that is all we know about them. Here we want to get a different glimpse of the personalities that constitute the development space. Every month we get one leader to answer four questions, not necessarily about their work, but about themselves. This week we catch up with Percy Ghaswala, Founder Trustee of Ghaswala Vision Foundation.
There are 3.8million corneal blind people in India – 60% of whom are children. Corneal blindness has several causes, but malnutrition and poor hygiene are chief among them, thus disproportionately affecting the poor. Working at an eye bank for years, Percy closely witnessed the financial barriers between the abandoned poor and life-changing eye restorative surgeries.
Quitting his job, Percy knew he wanted to work towards bridging that gap and thus, he founded Ghaswala Vision Foundation (GVF) in 2002 to help restore the vision of patients living below the poverty line who can’t afford surgeries and medicines. Today GVF provide 35-40 individuals free services annually. These range from medicinal support for vision-threatening disorders to simple interventions.
Small Change: Describe your moment of epiphany that led you to start Ghaswala Vision Foundation?
Percy Ghaswala: I think it was an inner calling but the first time I strongly felt it was about 20 years ago in April 1999 when I was working in Mumbai as the chief of Asia’s largest Eye bank, Eye Bank Coordination & Research Centre (EBCRC).
One evening, a cornea was available so as per the usual procedure, I made a call to a lady from the waiting list. The phone kept on ringing and no one picked up. I called three times and at the end of the third call, a frail voice picked up and said, “What is it?”.
To that 72-year-old lady, I said. “Maa-ji, an eye is available for you. You can go to the doctor tomorrow and get the surgery done.”
After a long pause, she said, “I have no money left. This wretched surgeon is asking for another ₹20,000.” And she started crying. I tried to ask her if someone can help her because getting a chance at restoring vision is rare. She told me that she has no one and she has sold her jewellery and furniture so she has nothing.
Then she said, “I am old and I will die as a blind woman. Give it to someone else.” That really hit me and resulted in many sleepless nights. This and many other instances made me realise there is an abandoned section of poor who have no money or support.
I finally quit in 2001 and decided to listen to my inner calling and after much struggle Ghaswala Vision Foundation started the next year.
SC: What do you love about what you do?
PG: The gratification one gets from knowing that you are restoring vision for someone. This is something you don’t get from material gains. And more importantly, knowing that I can transform lives by doing what I do is a different feeling. By restoring vision, a tailor gets to go back to his job, to his livelihood and be independent. Often when without vision, people or abandoned or become redundant. They fall into a vicious cycle of debt. Someone has to handhold them and get them out of the rut.
And when you do that the satisfaction is priceless.
SC: What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
PG: Many would be surprised to know that I have faith in God. I am not the type who prays four times a day or visits a mandir or masjid. People often assume I am an atheist because maybe I sound like one so when they get know that I actually believe in God, they find it hard to believe.
Also, many people don’t know that I have a background in Biomedical Informatics and a PhD dropout (laughs). I sit on both sides, the IT side and nonprofit side. And I run my own IT firm.
SC: You have been forced to eat only four things for the rest of your life. Which four items would you choose?
PG: I would choose dal, chapati, sabzi (anything apart from karela, not the bitter ones please!), rice. My philosophy is ‘simple living, high thinking.’
Ghaswala Vision Foundation is currently running a fundraiser to provide free eye surgery for Vanita who has a progressive eye disorder. If you would like to help Vanita return to school, click here.