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A dream of development rising from the ashes
- One man’s mission of health, education for thousands

A phoenix took wing 45 years ago. Born out of the ashes of a rural Midnapore crematorium, one man’s dream has soared into a temple of knowledge and nurture for thousands. From a hogla-leaf hut bordering the burning ghat, to a sprawling compound with state-of-the-art education and medical facilities, the Vivekananda Mission Ashram has come a long way since it was formally established in 1962.

Driven by one man — Swami Bishwanathananda, the general secretary — the Ashram has moved from strength to outstanding strength. For his single-minded devotion to the cause of learning and development, Swamiji was inducted into The Telegraph Education Foundation Hall of Fame at Science City on Saturday.

In the 1960s, while Swamiji was still studying at Calcutta University, he started helping out at a small high school set up for girls in Chaitanyapur, Haldia. “There used to be only one school in the area, which was not in a very safe place,” recalls the 63-year-old. For want of proper premises, two huts were built near a crematorium, to serve as a high school for girls. Since then, almost 40 projects have been set up.

“These things have just happened over the years. People of all kinds have come forward to help,” smiles the slender man, saffron robes draped impeccably. A boys’ secondary school, primary schools, a school for visually-impaired boys and girls and a degree college, with extensive hostel facilities, have been set up. All sections have excelled at the Madhyamik and Higher Secondary (HS) levels. “Every year, one of our blind students tops HS,” says Swamiji. Academics aside, students were sent to compete at the Blind Olympics in Spain a few years ago.

A flourishing vocational training centre and production unit is in place for the adult blind. Indian Oil, Haldia Petrochemicals, Exide and others buy products like files and dusters from the centre. The Mission, with an extensive Braille library and one of the only training centres for teachers of primary-school blind students in the country, is also the site for experimental research by Webel and IIT for a Braille software.

Other services have come up “more out of necessity than any clear planning”. Medical crises with students prompted them to open charitable dispensaries — both homoeopathic and allopathic — which are now also utilised by the villagers. An eye-emergency on campus caused Swamiji to set up a five-bed hospital. Of all his achievements the calm, composed man seems most excited by the growth of the eye-care clinic. Now a full-fledged 100-bed hospital, Netra Niramay Niketan attends to over 350 patients a day. They also run an outreach programme, involving eye check-ups in the villages and those in need of surgery are brought back to the clinic. Last year, the centre recorded over 10,000 surgeries. The Niketan is one of nine hospitals in India chosen to conduct research on diabetic retinopathy.

Inspiration lies in Swami Vivekananda’s teachings. And Swami Bishwanathananda’s clarity and focus are rare. “If you have the goal in mind, then the path works itself out,” he assures. “If you want to buy a horse, go ahead and buy it. If you constantly bother about how to make the stable, you will never reach your ultimate goal, which is to own the horse. Isn’t it'”

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