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BW Businessworld

The Vision Statement

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Govindappa Venkataswamy, better known as Dr V, might not have read Henry David Thoreau. But his life and work epitomised the legendary American writer's famous line: "The eye is the jewel of the body." Infinite Vision by Pavithra K. Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy tells the story of Dr V's successful healthcare venture — Aravind Eye Hospitals — and takes the story beyond just chronicling the success of a healthcare enterprise.

The book, which shares its name with a documentary, tells the story of how Dr V and a group of inspired people built one of the world's largest eye care hospitals. The book is divided into five parts but the narration is not in a chronological order. It begins with the operational model of Aravind and the now-ubiquitous Harvard Business School business case study that made it known to the world at large. It, then, steps back in time to talk about how Aravind was started as an 11-bed hospital by its founder, Dr V, who had to abandon his practice as an obstetrician at the age of 58, after being afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis, and begin practising as an ophthalmologist.
The authors have attempted to examine the Aravind ecosystem as critically as possible, without being in awe of the selfless characters that dot its landscape. The book reveals to the reader certain fallibilities of Dr V as well as the difference in the temperaments of its multiple generations, showcasing several characters to underline its points.

The book is written in a way where you cannot help getting charmed by Dr V's idealistic life and vision. It is interesting to read how the Aravind group established several entities, including a manufacturing outfit for producing intra-ocular lenses (Aurolab), by transforming not just ophthalmology but healthcare and business as well. Dr V's frequent message to his people was: Do the work and money will follow.

The book deals with Aravind's attempts at replicating its success in India and abroad through several partnerships. The final section on succession planning is arguably the most impressive. The way the group has handled the sensitive issue is insightful. Not only did it successfully pass the mantle across two generations, enduring various challenges from the two generations, it also thrived during the process. The group's interactions with its well-wishers across the world such as Sir John Wilson (of Sight Savers International), Fred Munson and various members of Seva Foundation, who have played a pivotal role in guiding the group through its evolution, is well captured. The authors have done a good job in evoking this by letting the characters speak for themselves.

Expectedly, much of the tome is devoted to Dr V and his indefatigable spirit, but it is not a biography as it chooses to mostly discuss his life at Aravind rather than his personal life. That is why much of his early life before Aravind finds only sporadic mention.

Although it might sound patronising, the way Dr V's life at Aravind and his persona have been captured makes it difficult to find any fault with the book. Perhaps one aspect that the authors seem to have skipped is the fact that Ray Kroc, the founder of Dr V's inspiration McDonald's, was also in his late 50s when he founded the fast food enterprise, a model of replicable process efficiency, an example that Aravind has striven to emulate.

The book is a welcome addition to the non-fiction genre, particularly the sparse sub-genre of initiatives in the social and healthcare space. It has enough content to hold the interest of both business and non-business readers. Perhaps the fact that one of the authors, Pavithra, is the grand niece of Dr V may have helped in making the book what it is.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-05-2012)