As I walked down the corridors of Jamuna hostel on that hot summer day in April 2011, my old memories of the fun times during my stay in Jamuna came back. I looked towards Ganga- where I spent a lot of fun times with my “gang” – and Alakananda, where I spent my first year of IIT and was given a rude awakening about the calibre of students I was going to be spending more than 5 years with. I entered IIT in 1975 and graduated in 1980 – those were probably the best 5 years of my life.

 

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I remembered those first few days in the campus- 36 years ago- when I was sitting in the CLT listening to Dr. Sampath, then deputy director, saying “you are the cream of the cream of the cream- and you should be proud”. I almost believed it until I met the likes of Juni (given the name because he was the youngest amongst us), who used to play with all of us in the common room any time during day or night but always managed to be the first in class. I also remember the nights in Gajendra circle where we had deep philosophical (☺) discussions. Of course, who can forget OAT, where we had great parties, saw great movies, and where I saw my first rock concert!! Finally, I remember the Jayanthi Theater and Taramani tea stalls, where we spent quite a bit of time. What I cherish most is all the friendships I developed, and how confident I became. IIT taught me life’s biggest lesson: we can accomplish anything we put our minds to.

In 2011, I was in IIT to receive an award as a “distinguished alumni” for our charitable work on Sankara Eye Foundation, USA (www.giftofvision.org). I was extremely happy that the enormous effort of so many people was being recognized. Sankara Eye Foundation, USA (SEF) had made enormous strides towards its mission of eradicating curable blindness in India. When SEF was founded in 1998, its sister organization in India – Sankara Eye Care Institutions (SECI) – was running a single hospital out of Coimbatore and performed about 8000 free eye surgeries per year.

Today, we have 8 community hospitals running across India, with the 9th one inaugurating in Kanpur in June 2013 and land for the 10th one in Jodhpur ready for construction which will start soon.  SEF crossed a total of one million free eye surgeries in 2013, and performed 150,000 free eye surgeries in 2013.  It is one of the largest free eye care providers in the world today and hopes to attain freedom from curable blindness in India.

I would consider myself blessed and extremely fortunate to be involved in such a great cause of giving sight to the blind and poor. Blindness as a disease was personally very close to me. I have seen my grandfather, a Sanskrit scholar and a high school head master, go from an independent person to completely dependent and delusional when he lost his eyesight due to Glaucoma. With all that, my brother K. Muralidharan and I were extremely hesitant when my uncle Mr. P. Balasubramaniam from Coimbatore, India, approached us to raise funds in USA to help sustain the good work being done by SECI. We felt we could not afford the time due to our work and family commitments. All of it changed completely when I visited the hospital in 1997 while on a company visit to India. The hospital was cleaner than the hospitals I had visited in the USA, equally well equipped, and seemed to provide better, more caring and personal service. The best part was that the service was being provided entirely for free to those in extreme poverty who could not afford to pay for their treatment. My brother, my neighbour and I started the organization in USA as soon as I got back from India.

Getting involved in this cause was an enormously satisfying but a very humbling experience. Although we feel very proud of our technical and professional accomplishments, there is nothing more satisfying than making even a small impact on other people’s lives. When I walked through the corridors of one of the hospitals in 1997, the patients who were resting after their surgeries, mistaking us as part of the medical team, blessed with all their hearts- “Neenga Nalla Irukkanum Sami”- that is worth more than all the other awards. My complete outlook on life changed after getting involved with the organization. I feel a deep sense of accomplishment whenever a new hospital comes up, and hear about all the poor people it will serve. SEF also helps develop close camaraderie with like-minded people. SEF USA has over 50,000 donors, and is considered one of the biggest Asian Indian charities in the USA, but has only 2 full time employees. The organization is run by volunteers, and they work hard because of their belief in the cause and the difference they are able to make in their home country.

My training at Intel Corporation and IIT taught me to aim high. In SEF, we applied the famous “copy exact” principle from Intel to repeat the winning formula from Coimbatore for all the new hospitals. We built with the goal of self-sufficiency, where each hospital will be operationally self-sufficient in 5 years with 20 percent paying patients. The SECI team rose to the challenge and set up processes that are the envy of many big corporations, and incited support from many of them (Infosys, for example).With all of this, I am sure we will accomplish our great vision of “Vision 20/ 20 by the year 2020″.

The ultimate reason for us to do this is simple: to make a difference and leave the world a better place. In a world where people believe in taking an eye for an eye, it gives us tremendous satisfaction to motivate the young through our work. Our passion has become contagious and has now touched and motivated many youngsters to join our cause.

As IITians, all of us have enormous capabilities and energies, and if we decide to contribute to the society, we can definitely have a huge impact on the world we live in.

 

 Sridharan obtained his B.Tech. in Civil Engineering from IIT Madras in 1980, two M.S. degrees from Southern Illinois University in ’82 and ’84, and an Executive MBA from Pepperdine University in 2004.

In recognition of Shri Sridharan’s philanthropy and outstanding contributions to eye-care among the rural poor in India, IIT Madras and its alumni are proud to confer on him this award of Distinguished Alumnus in 2011.