Vision Spring screen the vision of 10 lakh tea workers in Assam
Representational Image

Guwahati: Tea plucking is an art and a science. The first step in the manufacturing process of tea, plucking requires a delicate touch and keen eyesight.

For a fine black or green tea, pluckers must carefully select the first two leaves and one new bud from the tea bush.

Sukumoni Karmakar (51), a tea plucker in upper Assam, has been plucking for the last three decades. She tells EastMojo, “Having a good vision is very important to pluck fine leaves, which is necessary for good quality tea. It requires quick eye coordination and speed.”

Manual plucking is still the most predominant form of plucking tea leaves. Tea pickers must have perfect eyes to see which branches are the most healthy and are just the right size to pick.

Sumitra Bagh, a recent retiree from a tea estate in upper Assam, says, “I was a permanent tea plucker for the last three decades but from the last few months I had vision problems. I couldn’t see the leaves. The quality plucking (two leaves and a bud) was becoming much more difficult, so I decided to retire.”

Tea plucking is a demanding job that requires good hand-and-eye coordination, dexterity, accuracy, focus, and speed. It is also a job that relies heavily on good vision. Tea pickers must have sharp eyes to select the perfect leaves and buds to make the best quality tea.

As the demand for high-quality tea continues to grow, the importance of skilled tea pluckers cannot be overstated.

However, for many tea pluckers in Assam, good vision is not a given. Many low-income adults and children in the region lack access to eyeglasses, which can make it difficult for them to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities.

This is where VisionSpring — a pioneering social organization — comes in. The organization has launched ‘Livelihoods in Focus’ in Assam, with a commitment to providing eyeglasses to artisans and microentrepreneurs in the region over the next five years. The initiative is a significant step toward the larger goal of screening 10 lakh low-income people and establishing Assam as a clear vision state. Nearly 6 lakh eyeglasses would be required for 10 lakh workers, and the company says it is up for the task.

The campaign has the potential to unlock $13.5 million in income-earning potential in 2023 for tea garden workers, artisans and micro-entrepreneurs.

The event was recently launched in Guwahati.

Anshu Taneja, VisionSpring’s Managing Director, India, said, “We have witnessed firsthand a huge unmet need for eye-screening services and eyeglasses, and we know that ‘Livelihoods in Focus’ in Assam will help close this gap. Everyone can play a role in solving this problem—corporates, hospitals, government agencies, and others. This is joyful work, and we invite you to join us.”

VisionSpring is working as part of a collective movement to solve the problem of uncorrected blurry vision and lack of eyeglasses worldwide by 2050. Ella Gudwin, CEO of VisionSpring said, “60 crores (600 million) people in India need eyeglasses to earn, learn and drive safely. This is a solvable problem. By serving low-income workers whose occupations require clear vision, especially at near distances, we can help people maintain their livelihoods and provide for their families. Focusing on districts in Assam with large numbers of tea workers and artisans will also improve productivity in sectors responsible for a majority of the state’s GDP.”

The organization celebrated the launch of the movement with an event attended by Mr Joydeep Phukan, Secretary of Tea Research Association, Tocklai, Dr Bhanu Saikia, State Programme Officer and Joint Director of Health Services (Ophthalmology), Government of Assam, Mr Harkirat Singh Sidhu, Consulting Program Coordinator India, Rainforest Alliance, Mr Atul Singh, Vice President CSR, Emami Group among many other senior dignitaries.

A study conducted in 2018 with tea pickers in Assam found that with glasses, productivity increased by 22% on average and up to 32% among workers over 50.

In 2022, VisionSpring received a transformative $15 million gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, which will be allocated to ‘Livelihoods in Focus’, including in Assam, when matched by financial and in-kind resources contributed by the government, tea sector, and other corporate partners.

This Livelihoods in Focus initiative builds on VisionSpring’s decade-long track record of working in the state and documented evidence of impact. Vision correction through eyeglasses has the potential to add as much as 6% of incremental GDP to the state’s economy.

Research also shows that eyeglasses not only improve the productivity of workers but also improve the overall quality of life. Eyeglasses can reduce depression and anxiety, and increase involvement in religious and family life.

Tea industry officials recognize the benefits of good vision for their workers and the impact it has on the quality of the tea they produce. They have welcomed VisionSpring’s initiative and see it as a win-win situation for both the workers and the industry.

VisionSpring started screenings in tea gardens in Assam in 2014 and has conducted 59,000 eye screenings till December 2022. It has provided 35,000 eyeglasses till December 2022. The organization is committed to expanding Livelihoods in Focus to other parts of India, as well as tea, coffee, cocoa, and artisan regions of Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda.

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