Vision 20/20 by 2020 - The Sankara Scaling Journey to eradicate curable blindness

India is home to quarter of the world’s blind population - over 12 million are blind and more than 45 million are visually impaired. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of blindness is either curable or preventable. Not surprisingly the millions of poor who live in villages in extreme poverty with limited or no access to basic health care services – make up the bulk of the population that is affected by ‘curable blindness’. And all it takes – to restore sight to the affected population – is a simple cataract surgery.While the cure is simple, the cure has to reach millions of rural poor all over India. To tackle the problem, India needs multiple Mega Institutions that take on and build capacity to perform millions of surgeries annually.

In the year 2000 – Sankara Eye Care Institutions, India and Sankara Eye Foundation, USA set out an ambitious program of Vision 2020 by 2020. The goal was to create a mega community eye care institution by setting up 20 Sankara community eye care hospitals all over India by the year 2020 - with the capacity to serve over a million rural poor every year.

The scaling journey has made good progress – with 8 community hospitals all over India already operational at Coimbatore (headquarters), Guntur, Krishnankovil, Shimoga, Bangalore, Anand, Hrishikesh, Ludhiana. The 9th Sankara community hospital is set to open at Kanpur in April 2014. The 10th Sankara community hospital is to be set up at Jodhpur(Rajasthan) followed by Indore(MP), Chattisgarh and Orissa.


The outreach model and full range of high quality eye care services free for the poor

Sankara operates on a hub and spoke model with a Super Specialty Tertiary eye care base hospital located in a class 2 city in a state – covering all rural areas surrounding the base hospital through rural outreach. Sankara’s field workers in each village – screen villagers door to door and get the poor to visit Sankara eye camps scheduled at the village. The patients are screened at the village eye camps and those needing surgery and further treatment are taken to the base hospital in Sankara buses. Patients stay at the base hospital for 3 days, and are provided surgery, medicines, lodging and food completely FREE. At the end of their stay they are counseled and dropped back at the village. A post operative follow up is done after 30 days to ensure that patients have had successful recovery. This is supplemented by an audit done by a third party on a sampling basis - to ensure that quality is maintained and people are returning to productive work.

A Sankara community hospital is a 200 bed hospital – with full range of high quality eye care services. Sankara believes its range of eye care services to the poor needs to address not just cataracts, but emerging ailments that are rising in India. It provides a full range of services addressing diabetic retinopathy, retina and glaucoma services, eye banking, corneal transplants, pediatric ophthalmology and is one of the few centers in India focused on ocular oncology (cancer of the eye). 


Scaling All India: Building organizational capacity and Administrative efficiency

During the scaling journey, Sankara has had to radically transform itself from a high quality charitable organization mindset to a mega scale all India operation embracing the best practices and principles of scaling an enterprise – and applying and adapting the same to a social enterprise.

This has meant implementing systems, evolving new governance processes, innovating on financial sustainability and developing and retaining human resources and acquisition of senior talent and leadership to drive this aggressive expansion. Today Sankara has not only implemented these new practices but has done so while preserving its core values of compassionate and FREE high quality eye care for the poor.

Sankara embodies the definition of the new age social enterprise – organizations that combine the best practices of business and financial sustainability with the compassion to provide FREE services of the highest quality to the poor, thereby maximize social impact rather than profits.


Inset 1 :One millionth free eye surgery in 2013

Founded by Dr Ramani and Dr RadhaRamani in 1977 – Sankara Eye Care Institutions headquartered in Coimbatore was established to provide free quality eye care to the rural poor with a simple purpose ‘no one should lead life needlessly blind’.

On March 4, 2013, Sankara successfully performed its ONE millionth free eye surgery on Shanthi, a thirty-five year old illiterate woman weaver who supports her four children and physically disabled husband with her meager income. Shanthi’s story is not unique; it is just one of the hundreds and thousands of poor men, women and children that Sankara helps on a daily basis.

As Dr Ramani says “Curable blindness is one of the medical areas – where the results of medical intervention is tangible and palpable – patients come in unable to see and leave with sight regained. The sheer joy at being able to see again – and their heartfelt gratitude for this life changing difference – is an unmatched reward that we experience day after day”.

Today, Sankara is among the largest community eye care providers in India and possibly in the world with eight super specialty eye care hospitals in six states across India performing over 150,000 free eye surgeries annually.


Inset 2: Capital for Sankara’s scaling journey provided by the Indian community in the US

Sankara Eye Foundation, USA headquartered in the Bay Area is led by the Mr Murali Krishnamurthy Founder & Executive Chairman – and has been supported by a large group of dedicated volunteers all over US who work tirelessly on Sankara’s mission of building 20 Sankara eye hospitals all over India by the year 2020.

The Indian diaspora, prominent philanthropists and various Indian community organizations and cultural organizations have contributed amazingly to help grow Sankara from 1 hospital in 2002 to 8 community hospitals in 2013.

As Murali says “When the vision is big, and the mission is genuine; support comes from all quarters and when the community gets together, nothing is impossible. Together we will make it happen”.

Radhakrishnan Sundar
Radhakrishnan Sundar
Board Member, Sankara Eye Care Institutions
Sankara Eye Foundation (SEF,) USA, is a US-based non-profit organization that works toward eliminating curable blindness in India. SEF initiates and drives community eye care activities in India by working with Sankara Eye Care Institutions (SECI).