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India's reluctance to embrace eye donation a concern, but KJ Alphons' call to make it compulsory is unconstitutional

"If all dead persons donate their eyes daily, all the blind would be able to see," says a document for awareness on eye donation while stating that in India only 10 percent of the demand for eye transplantation can be met due to a lack of availability of corneas.

No wonder then that the paucity of the cornea is a cause of concern among health activists and doctors, who are giving a lot of importance to create awareness about eye donation among the masses on 'World Sight Day', celebrated globally on Thursday, 12 October.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

And perhaps that's why tourism minister KJ Alphons's statement that eye donation should be made compulsory in India makes sense. His proposal, which was made two days before World Sight Day, received a warm reception from doctors and health activists. But legal experts maintain that though this advice is well intended, it's not legally tenable.

Speaking on the sidelines of an event to announce an eye donation campaign by an NGO, Alphons had said so making a case for cornea donation to help those blinded by corneal diseases. He reportedly also said that he would write to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to make eye donations compulsory for all persons after they die.

Alphons' musings have strike chord with a few, given the growing concern over blindness in India.

India hosts almost one-fourth of the world's blind population, as per data published by Drishti, an organisation dedicated to creating an awareness for eye donation.

Dr Prasanna Shirol, a health expert based in Bengaluru told Firstpost that since making eye donation compulsory after death would harm none but benefit many, the government should consider the tourism minister’s proposal with all seriousness.

"After the death of a person, the organs of the body anyway go waste. So, why shouldn't there be a legislation, which makes eye donation after death compulsory? After all giving vision to someone equals giving life," he said.

As per Drishti, there are 52 million visually impaired people in India of whom 2,70,000 are children.

Quoting data from ICMR, the Drishti website says that about 25 percent of the total blind people suffer from corneal blindness and can be treated by corneal transplantation.

The study says that 2.5 lakh corneas are needed every year for transplantation, whereas the supply is as little as 25,000.

Estimated loss in India’s Gross National Product due to the high number of blind population is $11.1 billion, the NGO says.

Superstitions and a lack of awareness are two of the reasons why many people shy away from eye donation. A study published in the Indian Journal of Ophthalmology showed that even first-year medical students in Delhi showed considerable lack of awareness about eye donation.

The study perceived reasons for not pledging eyes by the people as lack of awareness (32.7 percent), objection by family members (27.7 percent) and unsuitability to donate because of health problem (17.7 percent) while 15.5 percent found the idea to separate the eyes from the body unacceptable.

Significantly though, many organisations have been working towards increasing the number of donors by creating an awareness among the people about the demand and supply gap of corneas that continues to exist.

Dr Shirol says that in such a situation a separate law is necessary.

He says, "I do not think that passing a law would be a problem because already some families follow the practice of donating eyes of their dead relatives. What is wrong if that practice is made a law?”

Ashok Agarwal, an advocate in Delhi High Court who has donated his body to AIIMS Delhi for clinical research purpose after his death told Firstpost that though the minister's proposal seems to be with good intentions, it can not be implemented due to constitutional reasons.

"The Constitution of India provides us complete right to our body under the Fundamental Right to Privacy. So, it is the individual concerned and none other can decide about his or her body," he said.

Hence, he said that donation of organs is completely a voluntary action and cannot be made compulsory.

"Even passing a law to make it compulsory would also be unconstitutional. No act can override the constitutional provisions,” he said.

Agarwal further said that a person's Fundamental Right to his or her body does not cease to exist even after death. "If a person in his lifetime decides not to donate any of his body organs after his death, even his near and dear ones cannot donate them after his death," he added.

Updated Date: Oct 12, 2017 22:26 PM

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