How it began at Blind People’s Association, India

The BPA was set up by Mr. Jagdish K Patel or Jagdishbhai as he was more popularly known. In 1936, when he was just eight years old, he lost his eyesight due to a bought of Meningitis that hit West Bengal, where he used to live with his parents. Meningitis paralysed his optic nerve, leading to full and irreversible blindness. After two years of his family praying for his eyesight to be restored, they enrolled him into the Calcutta Blind School, in 1938. A few years later, he joined the Victoria Memorial School for the Blind in Bombay, where he later on opted for a course in Physiotherapy. It was in 1947 that he became a qualified physiotherapist. In 1954, he set up the BPA to help others like him. In 1979, Mr. Bhushan Punani came on board and till date is managing the reigns of the organization.

Mr. Punani was born in Hansi, a small, sleepy town in Haryana. He studied at a typical Hindi-medium government school. Academically brilliant, he procured a state scholarship from the 4th standard itself. This meant that the Government paid his school fees and also gave him Rs. 10 per month for books. Apart from studies, Mr. Punani was also a state-level table tennis player.

Like many bright young men of his generation, Mr. Punani wanted to be a doctor. But he missed a seat in medical college by 3 marks. His high marks however qualified him for a prestigious dairy husbandry course in Karnal. He applied and got in. While at Karnal, he once again topped the university. He graduated with two gold medals – one for getting the highest marks in his batch, the second for getting the highest marks ever secured in that course.

A stint with Milkfood followed, which was not a very long one as he soon realized that was not his cup of tea. Then came a post-graduation degree, which lead to him being selected for an ICAR Fellowship, to do a PhD in Animal Husbandry and Genetics. During the same period, he had also applied to do an MBA with the IIMs. He got selected here too. While he took up the IIM opportunity, from day one he was very clear about his special area of interest – rural development. So it came as no surprise when he decided to spend a Summer studying tribal unrest in Simdega, in the interiors of Punjab. He also worked on IIMA’s rural development project in Jawaja during the same break.

Mr. Bhushan Punani from Ahmedabad’s Blind People’s Association

By the time placement came around, it was clear he would not go for a usual, commercial job. Says Mr. Punani, “The placement brochure for 1979 had an additional column, “unconventional job” in the table showing choice of job; which is what I opted for when filling out the form.”  That’s how he became a part of Blind People’s Association ( which was then known as Blind Men’s Association or simply Blind School). It was on the 14th of September 1979 and his salary at that time was Rs. 7,000 (basic) a month, adding up to Rs. 1 lakh a year. It was in fact a salary much lower than what he was getting prior to doing his management degree, but as he says, “salary was not my concern then.” The important thing was that the job was exciting and challenging.

Mr. Punani recalls how the moment this revelation was made that one of the alumni was joining a school for the blind, it became a topic of discussion in the institute; as many concerned persons considered that this type of placement might tarnish the image of the institute. He recalls the director summoning him with a note, “Come and see me.”

During their meeting, the director expressed his apprehension about this so-to-say “abnormal” decision and considered it as a “leap in the dark”. He tried to convince Punani to reconsider his unprecedented decision. But Punani went on to explain why he keen on the job – he wanted to use his management knowledge for the development of a marganalised group of people. He also made it clear to the director that he understood the risk he was taking and had decided to keep a two year perspective. If things worked out, he would continue at the school; else look for other opportunities.

In 1979, BPA was a very small institute with 80-90 staff , who catered to 250-300 beneficiaries. It comprised of a blind school from class one to twelve, a workshop and a vocational training center. With bank deposits of Rs. 10 lakhs and overdrafts of about Rs. 7 lakhs, it was clear that one of Mr. Punani’s main roles was to scale up the organization.

Within a year of joining, Mr. Punani realized that there were two ways to grow. The obvious route – increase the scope of activities at the institute. But to reach out to larger numbers, the organization would have to think beyond. Thus was born the idea of ‘projects,’ wherein instead of people coming to BPA, the institute started to go out to them. This two-pronged approach is followed by the organization till date. With time, the organization also introduced projects for the deaf and those with multiple disabilities too.

From one campus in 1979 to 8 campuses in 2013, BPA has a budget of over Rs. 20 crores today. Says Mr. Punani, “The work is not easy, but neither is it difficult.” His family’s unflagging support helps him dedicate long and demanding hours to the job – he’s at the office from 9:30am to 8:30pm everyday (even Sunday’s, till 2:30pm).

But as everyone who’s interacted with him over the past 35 years knows, it’s not a job for him but a mission!

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