Social Entrepreneur Profile: Sarangadhar Samal

Born in the small, backwater village of Santhasara, in the Dhenkanal district, Orissa, Sarangadhar Samal (Sarang) had many obstacles to overcome from the beginning of his life. His village had no electricity and very little communication to the outside world. An ambitious boy from the start, Sarang walked 12 km to school and back everyday—this was a 2 ½ hour walk both ways. Sarang describes the journey as difficult, as it was not along a road, but through the highly vegetated landscape of Orissa. It is not a surprise that Sarang was only the second person to receive education in his village.

After moving on and receiving higher education, Sarang immediately went to work at an industry which worked with chemicals in making detergents. However, soon after starting work, Sarang says that he realized that he was unhappy. He saw discrimination in his work, as the managerial staff of the industry was being paid large amounts of money, while the day laborers were paid very little.  Thus, he proceeded to resign, joined the labor union, and divorced himself from the corruption that he saw in the industry. Moving on to work for a government-run lumber company, he once again saw exploitation—“black money,” he says, was involved in many transactions. It was around this time that Sarang discovered his passion for social activism. His belief in equality—especially that of opportunity—drove him to leave home with no plans or destination and with the sole goal to become a social worker.

In his travels, Sarang encountered an isolated tribe called the Santal. Upon his initial encounter with them, Sarang remembers how they were armed with bows and arrows and wore giant headdresses. He says that they took him to their village. Sarang saw these people as an opportunity to start his social work. He began to teach them basic numbers and letters in Oriya. Sarang reflected on how “happy” they were to learn. Furthermore, in order to save time for the local women, who walked large distances to collect water daily, Sarang initiated well digging in the village. People began to hear of Sarang’s good deeds and his talent for organization and began to support him. Slowly, through various projects, NYSASDRI was created with its mission to fight against poverty and improve the quality of life of the Oriya people.

It was in the 1980s that Sarang noticed the great correlation between blindness and poverty. He explained that NYSASDRI’s mission was “obstructed by blindness because visual impairment results in loss of productivity as well as spoils the household economy.” In addition to the lack of eye care in Orissa, during this time 50% of the surgeries undertaken for cataracts were resulting in increased blindness due to low quality of care. Thus, Sarang felt that NYSASDRI must offer comprehensive eye services to the poor. Although many people encouraged him to create an eye hospital in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, Sarang believed it was more important to have his hospital at the “doorstep” of the rural Oriya population. Dhenkanal was chosen due to its central location in Orissa. Here, in October 2002, Sarang has said they took a risk to create the eye hospital. They rented a small house for 5000 rupees a month and started their practice, concentrating only on cataracts and refractive errors.  Eight years later, with a new hospital building, thriving staff, and the latest technology for eye care, Sarang’s hospital model  is being used by others to start their own hospitals all over the world.

Sarang says, “It’s easy to set up a hospital.” All you need are three things: space, hires, and technology. Sarang took a risk and rented his first hospital space. For paramedics and doctors, he decided to train local Oriyans in eye care, helping the local economy and providing these young Oriyans with a future. His doctors are now world-class cataract surgeons.  And lastly, through the help of NGOs like Unite for Sight, he was able to get the necessary technology for the hospital.

As for the future, Sarang has said that sustainability is the hospital’s greatest challenge. While the hospital is successful in its outreach camps, paying patients are few and far between due to the poverty in the area. Only with paying patients will the hospital be able to continue to help the greater community. Thus, one significant role given to Unite for Sight volunteers working at the KEHRC is to work on marketing the hospital, and researching how the KEHRC can attract these paying patients.  Of the over 100 volunteers from Unite for Sight who have worked at the KEHRC, Sarang has said each and every one has been “very very good” at helping them with their mission.

Currently a very busy man, Sarang does his work with a determination seldom seen. His zeal for social activism, which he found at a young age, continues today. One of his newer roles is being Vice President of the now one year old Rotary Club of Bhubaneswar Heritage. When asked if he enjoys what he does, Sarang has said that he is “not yet satisfied,” but he “expects many things in the future.” With his humble beginnings and track-record so far, there is little doubt there is much that this man will still bring to his community in the future.

This profile was written by Alexandra Woodcock, Unite For Sight Global Impact Fellow