IN CONVERSATION: Mahesh Vijaykumar, Board of Trustee and Head of EVF India, shares his experience of working in public private partnerships to eliminate poor vision - Essilor See Change

Mahesh Vijaykumar, Board of Trustee and Head of Essilor Vision Foundation (EVF) India, was recently appointed as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Advisor to the state Government of Karnataka. This followed the government recognizing the ambitious three-year project “Namma Kannu Namma Doddaballapura” (NKND), which translates to My Eyes, My Doddaballapura, as one of the top five CSR projects for socio-economic development in the state. NKND provides quality vision care services to the 300,000 residents of Doddaballapura region and eliminate poor vision in the region. We spoke with Mahesh to learn more about his thoughts on the private sector working with governments and NGOs to achieve common goals.

Congratulations on your new appointment as Advisor – CSR (Honorary) to the Government of Karnataka! Tell us briefly about this role and what you hope to achieve.

I will be supporting the Government of Karnataka by advising on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) collaborations in the Karnataka state for the Sustainable Development Goals Coordination Centre (SDGCC). The SDGCC was jointly set up in 2019 by the Government of Karnataka and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in order to fulfill the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development Goals in Karnataka. In my role, I hope to bring CSR stakeholders together to invest in Karnataka’s key focus areas like rural development, health and medical sectors, including funding the state’s vision care industry. 

What is the current state of eye health in the state of Karnataka? What are some of the key challenges and opportunities in improving eye health in the state?

Upgrading infrastructure and human resources in public health facilities are key priorities for the state of Karnataka. We saw this with the state’s rollout of Universal Health Coverage in 2018, becoming the first Indian state to do so. However, there is still the issue of access to quality health care services for those living in rural areas, as most of the health care professionals are concentrated in cities and bigger towns. This is also reflected in the lack of access to vision care and our challenge therefore is to bridge the gap between existing health care models and rural communities. One of the ways we can do so is by bringing in CSR stakeholders and advising them on the specific areas and initiatives that need funding.

What role do you think public-private partnerships can play in addressing those challenges/opportunities?

The importance of public-private partnerships is not unique to the health sector; in general, for successful implementation of any large-scale developmental initiative, Public Private Partnership (PPP) is critical. Both the Government and members from the private sector have valuable strengths that will contribute towards addressing the needs of the people.  In addition to expertise, the private sector would also be able to offer funding, technology and an established network that could help get through to unreached members of the community.

Why do you think it’s important for the private sector to work with governments and NGOs to address complex public health issues like uncorrected poor vision?

 Lack of awareness, access and affordability are the three main obstacles to overcome in order to address uncorrected poor vision. Government funding and initiatives alone can’t address this widespread issue and on the other side, NGOs working on the ground at village level, need support to amplify their good work.

This is where a synergy can be established through thoughtful and impactful collaboration between the private sector, the Government and local NGOs in order to provide quality eye care services to the people.

How has EVF India worked with public sector and NGO stakeholders to advance eye health in India? Could you share some recent examples as well as any learnings gleaned from those partnerships? 

EVF India strongly believes in developing partnerships with key players and stakeholders in the vision care space such as the Government, eye hospitals and NGOs working for community outreach programs. Strategic partnerships are a core part of how EVF India works towards the ambition of eliminating poor vision and its lifelong consequences, and to providing underprivileged people the opportunity to live a better life through better sight. These collaborations have helped us reach over 2.5 million people in 7 years and distribute over 250,000 spectacles for the needy.

A recent example of a successful partnership was in 2019 where EVF India supported the program “Blindness Free Maharashtra” launched by the Government of Maharashtra in collaboration with the not-for-profit organization Ratna Nidhi Trust. The three-year project is estimated to reach 2.5 million children studying in government schools in the state. EVF has committed to support the government with 150,000 free spectacles for the children that are identified as having uncorrected refractive error.

In 2018, EVF India launched the project ‘Namma Kannu Namma Doddaballapur’ in collaboration with the Government of Karnataka to create access to free vision care for all residents in Doddaballapura Taluk. Through this unique and first-of-its-kind project, which entails door-to-door eye screenings, we are hoping to reach over 300,000 residents in the Doddaballapura Taluka region within Karnataka state. At present, we have completed 85% of the project and in the next two months we will be able to announce the region as free of uncorrected poor vision. I’m also delighted to share that this project was recently commended by the Government of Karnataka as one of the top 5 CSR projects for socio-economic development in the state.

Additionally, EVF India has been working with the Special Olympics since 2002, providing thousands of athletes with free vision screening and spectacles they need to perform their best. This ongoing contribution to promoting inclusive healthcare was recognized this year through the Golisano Health Leadership Award, which was presented by the Special Olympics International, USA and the Golisano Foundation, USA.