The Madurai-based Aravind Eye Care System, which has performed more than one-and-a-half million free eye surgeries in India, received the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize April 20 in Redwood City, Calif.
The world’s largest humanitarian prize was presented to Dr. P. Namperumalsamy, Aravind’s chairman, by Steven Hilton, grandson of the late hotelier Conrad Hilton, who created the prize in 1996.
The prize money will be used to scale up the organization’s reach into India’s villages and its research into the diseases causing blindness, Namperumalsamy said.
"The most critical aspect of our selection process is that the organization demonstrates success in alleviating human suffering in a creative way, and with real impact,” Hilton, who serves as chairman of the Conrad Hilton Foundation, told, noting that the selection each year is made by an independent jury.
“Of all the things that could go wrong with your life, blindness has to be the most devastating. Aravind is directly touching the lives of extremely poor people and changing their lives very quickly,” said the uncle of socialite Paris Hilton.
India has the largest number of blind people — 15 million — in the world, noted the World Health Organization in a May 2009 report.
More than 75 percent of blindness is curable, noted the WHO, adding that cataracts remain the leading cause of the affliction.
Aravind Eye Care began humbly in 1976, with 11 beds in a rented building. Since then, it has grown to become the world’s largest eye care organization, serving about 300,000 patients annually from five hospitals in India.
The organization performs surgeries to reverse or stop blindness, at a cost of about $35 per eye. It hopes to establish 15 more hospitals and perform half a million surgeries annually in India by the year 2015.
Namperumalsamy founded the organization after retiring, along with his wife Natchiar Govindappa, and the late Govindappa Venkataswamy.
Venkataswamy was inspired by the fast-food chain McDonalds – “quality food at an affordable price” — and set out to develop a standardized model that could be endlessly replicated. Aravind’s 300 surgeons daily perform several surgeries back-to-back, thereby greatly reducing costs.
About two-thirds of the surgeries are performed for free, while the cost for the remaining one-third funds the free surgeries. The organization is self-supporting — it receives no private or government funds — and operates on a sliding-scale basis for paying patients.
Namperumalsamy said Aravind would use the prize money to research diabetes-related blindness — India is the world’s capital of diabetes mellitus, he said — and cataract impairment.
The organization also plans to expand its manufacturing facilities, which currently produce many of the materials needed to perform surgeries. Aravind produces the intra-ocular lens used in cataract surgeries for about $2 apiece, a fraction of the $150 cost in the developed world. The organization is currently working on a laser to treat diabetes-related blindness.
The organization also trains its own nurses, who are recruited primarily from villages at the age of 16 or 17, and trained on the job for two years. The nurses do much of the prep work, allowing surgeons to more rapidly perform surgeries.
Aravind’s self-sustainability was an extremely rare phenomenon in the non-profit world, said Hilton. “You don’t see many organizations that can sustain themselves without fundraising or government money.”
The Obama administration could look to Aravind as a model for managing health care costs in the U.S., he opined. “Typically, when you go into a doctor’s office for a simple operation, the doctor, nurse and anesthesiologist are set up just for you, which becomes very expensive.”
This year’s jury included Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Princess Salimah Aga Khan, former prime minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland, and former United Nations Under-Secretary-General Olara Otunnu, among others.
The award was presented during the annual Global Philanthrophy Forum’s annual conference.