Since its inception in 2005, Cognizant Foundation has partnered with over 300 not-for-profit organizations, and has successfully implemented over 480 projects, which have impacted the lives of millions of underprivileged individuals across India. Additionally, our interventions have also been focused on addressing inequities and exclusions in areas such as access to healthcare, online education, and learning resources, and skills that generate livelihoods.
In this interview Rajashree Natarajan, CEO, Cognizant Foundation sharing foundation’s work and journey so far. Excerpts:
India has the largest blind population in the world. What are the efforts made by the Cognizant Foundation so far in helping these children prevent childhood blindness? What have been the achievements?
It is not unknown that India has the largest number of blind children in the world. However, what is not commonly known is that blindness in many cases is preventable. with timely intervention and treatment. Understanding the importance of vision to lead a normal and independent life, Cognizant Foundation started its ‘Preventing Childhood Blindness initiative’ with a sharpened focus on preventing childhood blindness through early detection, diagnosis, and treatment.
In collaboration with eye health institutions, schools and communities, the foundation has been working to support two projects: Screening for and treatment of ROP (Retinopathy of Prematurity); and school and community eye screening for children. Known as a common eye disorder, ROP affects premature infants, and if left untreated, can lead to lifelong vision impairment and blindness. This screening also identifies uncorrected refractive errors which are the single largest cause of vision impairment and other childhood blinding conditions such as squints and childhood cataracts.
The medical teams visit neonatal ICUs to screen preterm babies, and children in the community and schools, and provide necessary interventions including laser, injection, surgery, medication, and prescription glasses.
Since 2019, the initiative has been providing eye screening, medical treatments, surgeries, and compassionate counselling to the most vulnerable babies and children in six states across India in partnership with many reputed not-for-profit eye care institutions. Over the last three years, 123,800 infants and children have been screened across six states in partnership with five premier eye health institutions. Since then, over 1,300 infants and children have received sight-saving treatments, and 2,700 children now have prescription eyewear.
Can you share stories of a couple of children you worked with- What were the most common challenges you faced in identifying and treating these children? How do you overcome them?
Tarini* is one of the thousands of infants and children who have received vital sight-saving services through Cognizant India Foundation’s ‘Preventing Childhood Blindness initiative.’ Born prematurely at just 1,350 gms in March 2020, days before the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, Tarini faced the risk of permanent blindness due to ROP. We worked on overcoming the travel restriction challenges and helped her reach the LVPEI hospital in Bhubaneswar safely. This is one of the hospitals where our preventing childhood blindness project has been implemented. On diagnosis, it was discovered that her ROP had progressed to an advanced stage in both her eyes. LVPEI’s medical team in PPE kits administered laser treatment for 3 hours and successfully avoided Tarini facing a lifetime of blindness.
Another girl Rumi*, a 10-year-old from Jahangirpuri in Delhi had a vision impairment. Her mother noticed a squint in her left eye when she was an infant. However, due to a lack of awareness and economic conditions, she never received the required medical care. As Rumi grew older, her squint too became more pronounced, and she started to face difficulties in school, and her social life became reclusive. Luckily, in one of the door-to-door eye screenings with a team from Dr. Shroff’s Charity Eye Hospital, we came across Rumi’s challenge. Rumi immediately advised surgery, and the team provided the entire treatment free of cost. With the help of a successful diagnosis and timely treatment, today, Rumi leads a happy life and independent life and is doing well in school.
COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns posed a significant challenge in identifying children with blindness and offering support and treatment to them. With schools being closed during this period, it became all the more difficult to identify these children. To work around this challenge, we pivoted the original school screening project into a community screening project since schools were closed. The medical team identified alternate and innovative technologies for use in the field screening. Further, since getting to the hospital during a lockdown was a real challenge, the hospital teams liaised with government officials to facilitate travel for not only the medical teams but also parents to help ensure access to treatment and personalized care.
* – Name changed to protect patient privacy.
Beyond prevention of childhood blindness, could you shine a light on a couple of other key causes/campaigns the Foundation is working on in India?
Established 16 years ago, Cognizant Foundation was envisioned to support economically and socially disadvantaged sections of society and solve heightened inequities and exclusions. Since then, we have been focusing our efforts on child and women welfare, gender equality, prevention of disability and supporting persons with disability (PWDs). Our interventions are primarily in the areas of Healthcare, Education and Livelihood.
Our initiatives on education include offering scholarships that support access to higher education, especially for women and PWDs. We also work with NGOs and academic institutions to build and scale up Digital and STEM learning, with a special focus on capacity building of teachers and school administrators.
In addition to the ‘Preventing Childhood Blindness initiative blindness program, we promote the importance of the well-being of women and children, and we are focusing on reducing infant and maternal mortality as well as infant disability. Through Project Suraksha, a five-year program launched in 2020 in partnership with Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT), Mumbai, we are working to facilitate communication and transportation for pregnant women and lactating mothers, and enable continual medical care, immunization and micro-nutrient supplements to high-risk pregnant women and lactating mothers throughout the entirety of their pregnancy as well as for children 0-2 years of age.
We also support the skills training of PWDs, women and underserved youth through programs and training to equip them with the knowledge and skills required for employment.
As part of our rapid response to a deadly second wave of Covid-19, Cognizant launched ‘Operation C3’ to protect the health and safety of not only our employees and their families but vulnerable communities across the country. As part of this program, Cognizant delivered emergency relief funding of $8.5 million (approx 60 crores) to UNICEF and Cognizant Foundation India. The foundation collaborated with several NGOs and health authorities to mobilise lifesaving care and delivered 800 oxygenated COVID care beds for free, supported pediatric ICU units, over 7 lakh personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers, and special vaccination camps for people with disabilities and their caregivers.
Further, we are also committed to deploying the power of digital technologies to scale our programs, create greater impact and deliver maximum value to our beneficiaries. In line with this, we recently launched Tech4All, our flagship program with the aim to skill persons with disabilities and women for careers in technology and technology-enabled services. We have earmarked 2.08 crores towards this and partnered with Dr. Reddy’s Foundation, Cheshire Disability Trust and ANEW to train 800 people, including women from underserved communities, in basic and advanced IT skills to place them in technology-related jobs.
As we move forward to the next phase of our journey, we plan to continue championing initiatives that advance inclusive development for equitable opportunities, especially for children, women, and differently-abled persons.
You have been associated with Cognizant for over 25 years and the Foundation itself has been in the works for over 16 years. Could you highlight how your journey has been in working as part of the Foundation and helping drive social impact in India?
While I began my career in IT, over the years I realized my true calling was in working for social causes. Eventually, I moved full-time to this space and have been associated with Cognizant Foundation India since its inception. As the CEO of the Foundation, I came across the challenges the underrepresented and underserved communities faced related to basic healthcare, education and livelihood.
In the healthcare space, our initiatives continue to focus on providing women and children from underserved communities access to quality healthcare. Also, given our strong focus on healthcare, our COVID-19 relief efforts were aimed at safeguarding frontline workers and strengthening healthcare systems across nine states.
In the area of education, Cognizant Foundation has been committed to providing students from underprivileged communities access to high-quality education through scholarships for higher education, digital learning, STEM, and vocational-technical education. Through short-term skills training programs, the Foundation also empowers underprivileged adolescents, women, and the differently-abled access to meaningful employment opportunities.
Going forward, our key focus continues to be fostering inclusiveness, increasing our reach through cooperation, and harnessing the power of technology to impact lives at scale.
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