Recognised as a Scheduled Tribe in West Bengal, the Sabars are believed to have migrated here from the neighbouring state of Odisha for work during the 1940s. They continue to work as farm labourers or fishermen on the island. An attempt to maintain their distinctive identity and traditions has also meant that they have consciously chosen to limit their contact with ‘outsiders’.
Not surprisingly then, the initial efforts of the community health worker designated for the area to engage with them were rebuffed. On his part, the community health worker was also unable to fully understand their language and this made communication even more difficult. Two years of meetings with local leaders, chats with community members at tea shops and other such interactions finally paid off. By then, the health worker had picked up the language as well. “He (community health worker) comes to visit us often. He discusses about eye related services,” acknowledges Bimal Bhogta who is a leading figure among the Sabars. Forty five year old Bimal, a fisherman by occupation, has been instrumental in helping the Sightsavers supported project on strengthening eye health services make its presence felt in the area. His interest stems from a very personal reason – his six year old daughter has vision related problems. “Here, we don’t have a good eye doctor. Everybody cannot go to Kolkata. It is expensive and we are all poor here,” he shares.
Bimal even followed up with Mukundu (a fellow Sabar) when he was referred for cataract surgery to restore his vision. The 63-year-old Mukundu had sunk into depression as his fading eyesight had cost him his reputation of being a good builder of houses with local materials. He had been making mistakes in measurements and mixing materials. He even had to refund some of the people whose houses he had been asked to help build. Yet, Mukundu remained apprehensive about the surgery. Bimal, along with the community health worker, managed to convince Mukundu to undergo surgery under the project. They stressed that he would receive quality services free of charge. Mukundu finally relented and underwent surgery at the hospital. He was able to return to his work and slowly correct his tarnished reputation. This success reinforced Bimal’s efforts as well. Subsequently, another four people from the area underwent cataract surgery. An eye check-up camp was also organised. Bimal accedes that it is still difficult to convince people to step outside the island for services. “People don’t want to go out. Some are still afraid of surgery,” he shares. But, on the positive side, there is now an openness to talk to the project personnel. That, Bimal agrees, is a good start.