It’s not uncommon for some truckers to drive for 14-hour stretches, sometimes more, with only a few minutes’ rest every few hours. As well as being exhausting, it’s also dangerous: accidents happen with alarming frequency.
Astonishingly, research in 2017 showed poor eyesight could be putting almost half of India’s truck drivers – and other road users – at further risk But their transient lifestyle, lack of free time and limited income mean that getting help for eye conditions, and receiving follow-up treatment, just isn’t possible.
To help drivers get the eye treatment they need, Sightsavers India has created a system that takes eye care services directly to them. Sightsavers’ Kate McCoy spent three days at a noisy roadside truck stop, a dusty fleet headquarters and a vast transport city to see the eye care team at work and meet some of the drivers. Read her story below.
At the pop-up eye camps, local partner eye care teams can set out their equipment and begin screening in a matter of minutes. There’s a lot of curious peering over shoulders and good-natured jostling as the drivers go through the initial vision tests and optometrist consultation, but when I sit down to talk to people it becomes clear just how much of a lifeline the service is.
Driving is a matter of survival: in almost all cases the drivers are the only earners in large families, just managing to scrape by. They’re trapped: if they don’t address their sight problems they won’t be able to drive for much longer, but their income won’t stretch to eye treatment.
Each day throughout the camps, the eye care team see 80 to 100 people: mostly drivers, but also a few other workers at the truck stops whose jobs rely on their vision, and some curious passers-by from the community. Even our driver Narinder goes for a check. He finds out he is developing cataract and picks up a pair of reading glasses!
It’s remarkably efficient – the busy drivers complete the whole process in about 15 minutes. If they have no problems, they’re given a certificate of clear vision, which will help them secure work. Sightsavers India aim to reach 500,000 drivers in this way by the end of 2020. It’s bound to have a significant impact on road safety, as well as giving drivers and their families some much-needed security for the future.
Ravinder Singh has been driving for almost 40 years. He has a wife and five children in his home state of Bihar, but his route takes him to other states so he lives in his truck, and can only afford to go back to see them every 18 months. When we spoke, he was happily sporting a brand new pair of glasses.
“I was having problem with near vision for about a year,” he explained. “If there was a person [in front of the truck] I wouldn’t see them, then all of a sudden they’d be in front of me and I’d have to brake suddenly, nearly causing an accident. I didn’t go to the doctor before because I don’t even have a house to live in, so how can I afford a pair of spectacles?
I earn, I eat and I send money to the family. Where will I get the extra money to buy a pair of spectacles? If I couldn’t drive it would be a big problem – we wouldn’t have been able to get food.
“Now I have these spectacles for free, I’ll be able to work for more days and earn my living. I could only get them because it was free. I feel great – I’m very happy.”
Biswanath Dey is 60 years old. Six months ago he was diagnosed with cataracts, but couldn’t afford the operation to treat them. He hadn’t stopped driving, so I was shocked when he told me he couldn’t see my face clearly when I was sitting right in front of him.
“It’s becoming hazier day by day,” he revealed. “Near things are cloudy. I can see big things [far away], but not smaller things. I’ve just got used to this and normally I don’t take my truck out at night so it’s not that difficult. I adjust to the difficulties I face – my eyes accommodate. I have fixed routes to two places, so since I go daily I know where is what.”
With his referral from this screening, he can now get free surgery to treat his cataracts. “I will be happy if the operation is a success – there can be nothing greater than that. Images will be clear in front of me while driving. It will be safer.”
For fellow truck driver Harmush Khan, finding the screening camp at his truck stop was a case of right place, right time. Harmush had been worrying about his sight for a while, but didn’t know what to do about it. He’d stopped off to get some work done on his truck when he heard he could get help.
“It was a stroke of luck. I’m really happy there’s a free camp here exactly when I needed it. I’m not a wealthy man, so for me getting this service is really important. I’m immensely grateful that I don’t have to go outside [of my route] and give out money – that might be difficult for me, so I am really really happy.”
Ramjit Mahato was first given spectacles at an eye camp a year ago, but they broke so he came back to get a new pair.
“I was very frightened before I got them,” he reveals. “I was scared of an accident at any moment. My eyes used to water too much and hurt when I was driving. Since I drive for long hours, it was very painful. Now it has reduced dramatically. I feel safe now – I’m confident that no accidents will happen. Putting the spectacles away is a problem now, I’m so dependent on them! I’m so happy that once I put them on I can get everything just so. Everything changes.
“Because of spectacles we will be safe, other people will be safe, and the vehicles that give us the money will be safe. So spectacles are very important.”
All photos ©World Health Organization/Arko Datto