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Charged by an elephant at Wasgamuwa

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by Dianthi S. U. Wijeratne

I am grateful to my parents for encouraging me to appreciate nature. Both of them are great enthusiasts of wildlife and, as a result, our journeys to the wilds began at a very tender age.

One of my childhood memories is of an incident in 1973 where my family consisting of my parents, two brothers, sister and myself traveled to Yala in a car. At the time the roads were not like what they are in the park today. They were quite narrow and the surface was uneven. There was very little traffic unlike today.

I distinctly remember the tracker guiding my father into a little-used side-road. On the way we came across a large bull elephant, and the tracker told us that it was in musth. Usually bull elephants go through this process periodically when a thick fluid oozes from a gland between the eye and ear. Musth is an Urdu word which means `disoriented’. In other words, the elephant has no control over its mind. It is said that this period could last from a month to a year. During this time it makes the animal unpredictable and destructive, and is generally a time for it to attack whoever crosses its path.

As we were passing the animal it flapped its ears and the next thing we knew was that it was charging us. We children were small but excited and scared. My father was driving the car, and I remember my mother showing him the potholes in order to avoid them. However, in the excitement he drove over them, with much jolting of the vehicle. The tracker warned my parents that the road was a dead end, and this was not very soothing news, specially considering the situation we were in. Fortunately, by the time we turned and came back the angry elephant had retreated into the jungle much to the relief of all of us.

Camping at Wasgamuwa

As years went by we no longer traveled in cars to the jungle, but in four-wheel drive vehicles. In any case we were all grown up and could not be accommodated comfortably in a car. The trips too became more adventurous and exciting, with camping trips with family members and friends thrown in.

Our first trip to Wasgomuwa was in 1992 when we drove through the National Park on our way back from a trip to Polonnaruwa and a visit to the old Veddha chief, Uruwarigey Tissahamy in Dambane.

The Wasgamuwa Park is situated in the North Central Province in the extreme south-east corner of Tamankaduwa. It is bounded by the rivers, Mahaweli Ganga, Amban Ganga, Kalu Ganga and Wasgamuwa Oya, and was declared a National Park in August 1984. It was only in 1992 that it was opened to the public. Close to the park, on the way to Hasalaka, one would notice Minisgala which, as its name implies, is a rock depicting an upturned human face. The road to the park was in an appalling condition that year.

The only living creatures we managed to see in the park at that time were some deer and a python. The latter was on the main road within the park, and looked like a log. It was in the same position when we returned about an hour later. We did not have the privilege of seeing any elephants, though it was known to be a favourite habitat. The park was fairly new at the time and did not have any bungalows within for public use.

Yudaganawa

Within the park, a place with a historical significance was Yudaganawa, which is a vast plain with small black rocks visible here and there. The main road within the park passed through it. It was believed to be the venue of King Dutugemunu’s famous battle with King Elara, where the latter was defeated. In the mornings, when the sun shines at an angle, the glare from the pebbles is red, and legend attributes this colour to the blood of soldiers killed or wounded in the battle at this site.

My father had visited the dispensary in Marake on official duty about 35 years ago. The apothecary, as well as some of his officials had told him at the time, that elephants often visited the area, and a place called Yudaganawa, where an ancient battle took place, was only a short distance away from the dispensary.

I heard from Dr. Walter R. Gooneratne that the dispensary has since been moved to a new place, and that the old dispensary building, which my father had visited, had later been converted into a bungalow within the Wasgamuwa National Park, close to its entrance.

Camping

Our second visit to Wasgamuwa Park was on a camping trip. This meant that more effort was needed when planning out the menus, bedding, tents, camping gear and so on. We set off early in the morning, as we always did. I remember that the main road to the park was in a much better condition than on the previous occasion. We reached the park by afternoon. I expected the campsite to be similar to the one at Yala, but it was not up to that standard.

In Wasgamuwa there was actually nothing to indicate that it was a campsite. As always, each of us had a task to perform. We contributed by getting the place swept, cleaned and organized. This was not a problem since ekel brooms too were part of our camping equipment. It was the dry season and setting fire to the dried leaves was not a safe procedure.

The Mahaweli, which flows by the campsite, had dwindled to a mere stream with large extents of sand exposed. Since trees surrounded the campsite the heat of the sun was not unbearable.

On this particular trip we managed to see a few elephants, with one in particular making a mock charge at us at a place called Sansthapitiya.

According to what we heard from the villagers, the human-elephant conflict was very much a threat to both parties. The roaming elephants had attacked many villagers. Chena cultivators apparently burned gunny bags and dropped them on elephants from their watch-huts in the trees in order to chase them away from their cultivations. Is it any wonder why elephants attack humans? It is said that an elephant never forgets.

One evening, while returning to our camp in the fading light, we saw a herd of deer by the side of the road. As we were approaching it, a deer suddenly dashed on to the road in front of us with another spotted animal in hot pursuit. The latter somersaulted and skidded in front of our vehicle and then ran back into the jungle from where it came. It was a spectacular scene of a leopard chasing its dinner, which it missed due to our presence.

Our third and final trip to Wasgamuwa was in May 1998. Everything was planned well ahead of time, since the preparations were very elaborate as we were embarking on another camping trip. We set off to Wasgamuwa in four four-wheel pick-up trucks. Each vehicle was packed with luggage, iceboxes, tents and foodstuffs.

We reached the campsite early, and this gave us ample time to pitch tents. Afterwards we decided on a bath in the river that was always on the agenda when it came to camping. Those who took beer and hot drinks enjoyed it the most, warming themselves from within and cooling from without while having a dip in the river. Next, we sat down to a sumptuous meal prepared by the cook who went with us, of course helped by the ladies as always.

Attack by an elephant

After our late lunch, the senior members of the party, including my father, Dr. Walter R. Gooneratne and Mr.Vernon Edirisinghe, made a decision that we could go for a quick round in the park. Ten of us managed to get into two vehicles leaving Mr. Senath Abegunawardena behind. My younger brother, Dishana with my mother and three gentlemen in it, drove my father’s Toyota. My husband, Rohan was at the wheel of our Mitsubishi with a young tracker by his side. Dr. Gooneratne, my father, Lakmali and myself were in the back seat.

We, who were in the lead vehicle, were taken along a narrow path when we encountered two large elephants with their backs facing us. The tracker wanted us to turn around suspecting they might attack us. My father came, to the conclusion that they possibly could be elephants from the Somawathiya National Park. Since the tracker mentioned that they were female elephants, the possibility that they were members of a herd was strong. It is a known fact that female elephants stay together with small baby elephants, but not with mature males.

Elephants have attacked vehicles many a time within the park. This knowledge did not deter our young tracker who knew very well that the party, which was very enthusiastic and loved wildlife, was willing to take risks. He therefore guided us to Sansthapitiya, which was a vast plain of grass with jungle bordering all round. At the time the sun was setting beyond the hills and nightlife was just beginning to manifest itself. I had my reservations about going to see wildlife at that time of day. Further, all of us were very tired at the time, having travelled most of the day.

There was nothing much to be seen except the bare plains and the jungle, which was about 50 metres away from the road. Everyone was straining his or her eyes ti catch a glimpse of an animal if there was one, when my husband suddenly spotted an elephant. Though we looked in the direction he pointed, we could not see it and neither did the tracker. My brother had followed closely behind our vehicle, in order to see what we were looking at.

The all of a sudden, without any warning, there came toward our vehicle a black ball of an elephant, all curled up and running as fast as its huge legs could carry it. Its ears were like large palm leaves flapping in the air, back and ford with its trunk and tail raised. The tracker got off the vehicle and started shouting and hitting the bonnet with his hands, but it was of no avail. The angry animal kept running directly towards us. The tracker, who was desperate and excited as all of us were, asked my husband to reverse the vehicle.

Reverse he did in haste, as was instructed. There was a thud and we all jolted. We had crashed into my father’s brand new vehicle, which was behind us. Well, that was more than we could stomach at a time like that, with a raging elephant still charging towards us. When my brother tried to reverse he could not move the vehicle. The buffer had been pushed backwards and it jammed the wheels. Then all of a sudden I could see a head with an enormous pair of ears flapping and fiery red eyes in front of our vehicle.

The angry beast looked at my husband who was frozen in his seat, then lowered its head, pushed it into the region of the right mudguard and then raised it up. With the power of the impact, the right side of the entire vehicle was lifted up, so that for a moment it stood only on the two wheels on the left side. We were all dumbstruck. I am sure everyone held his or her breath in shock and fear as I did. The angry animal then released the right side of the vehicle, hurriedly turned back, trumpeted in a frightful manner, lifted its trunk and tail and ran back into the jungle from where it came. It took only a few seconds for all this to happen, nevertheless the damage was vast.

We sat in our vehicle wondering what would happen next and how we were to get my father’s vehicle back to the campsite. Its radiator was bashed in and the buffer was damaged. No one dared to get down, not knowing where that brute of an animal was hiding and watching, maybe to attack again. From the time we reached the park, members of our party tried to get through to their homes in Colombo, but there were no signals on the mobile telephones.

The irony at that moment was that we managed to get a signal on the telephone and contacted the park office. The tracker informed the official of our plight, and the location we were in. He was quite shaken up, but for our luck he remembered the telephone number of the office. If he had not, I dread to think what could have happened next.

We were so relieved to see the rescue party, which included the park warden himself and his deputy. They spoke to all of us and asked us to be calm. The elephant had damaged the mudguard and the bonnet of our vehicle. We were more than lucky that only our vehicles were damaged and none of us was hurt. After inspecting the damage a person from the rescue party picked up a piece of the broken number plate and drew a line across the road in front of our vehicle, and recited a mantram. It was some kind of a protective charm considering the situation.

By this time the rest of the herd that had been hiding and probably watching us, came out on to the road one by one. This made us more nervous. One of the elephants did a mock charge slowly coming towards our vehicle. The rescue party left nothing to chance. Its members and the tracker together banged and thumped on our bonnet and with screams managed to chase them away. With the guidance of Dr. Gooneratne, my brother managed to steer the vehicle, which was towed to the trackers’ beat that was within walking distance from the campsite. The rescue party consoled us and once we were settled in camp they took leave of us at about 7.30 pm.

Our next step was to have a bath in the river, but that too was not possible, for just below the campsite, on the sand bank next to where we usually had a bath, was a large estuary crocodile. All hopes of washing away the aches and soothing the mental pain disappeared. Tension was quite high in the camp. The slightest thing triggered off my husband. I suppose it was unavoidable considering what we had gone through.

(To be continued) (Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by C.G. Uragoda)



Features

Scarcity, prices, hoarding and queuing

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By Usvatte-aratchi

We live in a scarcity economy and will do so well into 2024, past the next Presidential elections if it comes then; it may not. (The new minister may open bets.) All economies are scarcity economies; otherwise, there would be no prices. We also live in plentiful economies; look at the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, Paris or San Francisco during day or night. Scarcity is a relative term, as most terms are. A scarcity economy is one where prices rise relentlessly, where cigarettes are more expensive in the evening than they were the same morning. Scarcity economies will have two or more sets of prices: one official, others in markets in varying shades of grey until black. Scarcity economies are where everyone (producers, traders, households) hoards commodities, hoards everything that can be hoarded, at reasonable cost. Scarcity economy is one where productivity is lower than it was earlier, where both labour and capital idle. Scarcity itself may push down productivity. Observe thousands of people standing in queues to buy all kinds of things whilst producing nothing. That is labour idling. Others hang on to dear life in crowded trains arriving in office late to leave early, to get to ill lit homes where to cook each evening they repeat what their ancestors did millions of years ago to light a fire. Money is one commodity that can be hoarded at little cost, if there was no inflation. The million rupees you had in your savings account in 2019 is now worth a mere 500,000, because prices have risen. That is how a government taxes you outside the law: debase the currency. In an inflation afflicted economy, hoarding money is a fool’s game.

The smart game to play is to borrow to the limit, a kind of dishoarding (- negative hoarding) money. You borrow ten million now and five years later you pay 500 million because the value of money has fallen. US dollars are scarce in this economy. It is hoarded where it can wait until its price in Sri Lanka rises. Some politicians who seem to have been schooled in corruption to perfection have them stored elsewhere, as we have learnt from revelations in the international press. Electricity is not hoarded in large quantities because it is expensive to hoard. Petrol is not hoarded very much in households because it evaporates fast and is highly flammable. That does not prevent vehicle owners from keeping their tanks full in contrast to the earlier practice when they had kept tanks half empty (full). Consequently, drivers now hoard twice as much fuel in their tanks as earlier. Until drivers feel relaxed as to when they get the next fill, there will be queues. That should also answer the conundrum of the minister for energy who daily sent out more bowser loads out than earlier, but queues did not shorten.

As an aside, it is necessary to note that the scarcity economy, which has been brought about by stupid policies 2019-2022, and massive thieving from 2005 is partly a consequence of the fall in total output (GDP) in the economy. Workers in queues do not produce. The capital they normally use in production (e.g. motor cars, machines that they would otherwise would have worked at) lie idle. Both capital and labour idle and deny their usual contribution to GDP. Agriculture, industries, wholesale and retail trade, public administration, manufacturing and construction all of which have been adversely affected in various ways contribute more than 75% of total GDP. Maha (winter crop) 2021-22, Yala (spring crop) 2022 and Maha 2022-23 and fishing are all likely to have yielded (and yield) poor harvests. Manufacturing including construction are victims of severe shortages in energy and imported inputs. Wholesale and retail trade which depend directly on imports of commodities have been hit by the sharp drop in imports. Tourism, which is more significant in providing employment and foreign exchange, collapsed dreadfully since late 2019 and has not recovered yet. About 16 percent of our labour force work in the public sector. They have failed to contribute to GDP because they did not engage in productive work due to variegated reasons. Teachers were on strike for two months in 2021. In 2022, so far government employees have worked off and on. Wages of government employees are counted as contributions to GDP, by those that make GDP estimates. However, here is an instance where labour was paid but there was no output equal to the value of those wages. Such payments are rightly counted as transfers and do not count to GDP. For these reasons estimates of GDP for 2021 must be well below the 2020 level. The 3.6 growth in official estimates is unlikely. The likely drop in 2022 will be roughly of the same magnitude as in 2021. These declines are not dissonant with misery one sees in towns and the countryside: empty supermarket shelves, scant supplies of produce in country fares, scarce fish supplies, buses idling in parks and roads empty of traffic. There have been warnings from our paediatricians as well as from international organisations of wasting and probable higher rates of child mortality. It is this sort of sharp fall in wellbeing that engenders the desperation driving young and ambitious people to obtain passports to seek a living overseas. You can see those from mezzo-America amassed on the southern border of US. Will our young men and women end up beyond the wall of China?

Of this lowered supply of goods and services, this society is expected to pay a massive accumulated foreign debt. (Remember the reparation payments in the Versailles Treaty). In real terms it will mean that we forego a part of our lower incomes. Do not miss this reality behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts. It is not something that we have a choice about. That is where international help may kick in. Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after much senseless dilly dallying has started negotiations with the IMF. There is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge. Examine alternatives and hit upon an arrangement not because it permits the family grows richer but because it will make life for the average person a little less unbearable.

If prices are expected to rise people will seek resources to hoard: money to buy commodities, space and facilities to hoard, security services to protect the property and much more. Rice producers cannot hoard their product because animals large as elephants and small as rodents eat them up. Because of the unequal distribution of resources to hoard, the poor cannot hoard. In a scarcity economy, the poor cannot hoard and famines usually victimise the poor, first and most. If prices are expected to fall, stocks are dishoarded to the market and prices fall faster and deeper. In either direction, the rate at which prices change and the height/depth of the rise/fall depends on the speed at which expectations of change in prices take place. A largescale rice miller claims he can control the price of rice at a level that the government cannot. His success/failure will tell us the extent of his monopoly power.

When commodities are scarce, in the absence of a sensible system of coupons to regulate the distribution, consumers will form queues. A queue is rarely a straight here, nor a dog’s tail (queue, in French, is a dog’s tail which most often crooked). Assembled consumers stagnate, make puddles and sometimes spread out like the Ganges, with Meghna, disgorges itself to the Bay of Bengal. They sometimes swirl and make whirlpools and then there is trouble, occasionally serious. There is order in a queue that people make automatically. To break that order is somehow iniquitous in the human mind. That is why breaking the order in a queue is enraging. For a queue to be disobeyed by anyone is infuriating, and for a politician to do so now in this country is dangerously injurious to his physical wellbeing.

The first cause of rising prices, hoarding and queues is the scarcity of goods and services in relation to the income and savings in the hands of the people.

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Terror figuring increasingly in Russian invasion of Ukraine

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In yet another mind-numbing manifestation of the sheer savagery marking the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a shopping mall in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kremenchuk was razed to the ground recently in a Russian missile strike. Reportedly more than a hundred civilian lives were lost in the chilling attack.

If the unconscionable killing of civilians is a definition of terrorism, then the above attack is unalloyed terrorism and should be forthrightly condemned by all sections that consider themselves civilized. Will these sections condemn this most recent instance of blood-curdling barbarism by the Putin regime in the Ukrainian theatre and thereby provide proof that the collective moral conscience of the world continues to tick? Could progressive opinion be reassured on this score without further delay or prevarication?

These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency by the world community. May be, the UN General Assembly could meet in emergency session for the purpose and speak out loud and clear in one voice against such wanton brutality by the Putin regime which seems to be spilling the blood of Ukrainian civilians as a matter of habit. The majority of UNGA members did well to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine close on the heels of it occurring a few months back but the Putin regime seems to be continuing the civilian bloodletting in Ukraine with a degree of impunity that signals to the international community that the latter could no longer remain passive in the face of the aggravating tragedy in Ukraine.

The deafening silence, on this question, on the part of those sections the world over that very rightly condemn terror, from whichever quarter it may emanate, is itself most intriguing. There cannot be double standards on this problem. If the claiming of the lives of civilians by militant organizations fighting governments is terror, so are the Putin regime’s targeted actions in Ukraine which result in the wanton spilling of civilian blood. The international community needs to break free of its inner paralysis.

While most Western democracies are bound to decry the Russian-inspired atrocities in Ukraine, more or less unambiguously, the same does not go for the remaining democracies of the South. Increasing economic pressures, stemming from high energy and oil prices in particular, are likely to render them tongue-tied.

Such is the case with Sri Lanka, today reduced to absolute beggary. These states could be expected ‘to look the other way’, lest they be penalized on the economic front by Russia. One wonders what those quarters in Sri Lanka that have been projecting themselves as ‘progressives’ over the years have to say to the increasing atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. Aren’t these excesses instances of state terror that call for condemnation?

However, ignoring the Putin regime’s terror acts is tantamount to condoning them. Among other things, the failure on the part of the world community to condemn the Putin government’s commissioning of war crimes sends out the message that the international community is gladly accommodative of these violations of International Law. An eventual result from such international complacency could be the further aggravation of world disorder and lawlessness.

The Putin regime’s latest civilian atrocities in Ukraine are being seen by the Western media in particular as the Russian strongman’s answer to the further closing of ranks among the G7 states to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the issues growing out of it. There is a considerable amount of truth in this position but the brazen unleashing of civilian atrocities by the Russian state also points to mounting impatience on the part of the latter for more positive results from its invasion.

Right now, the invasion could be described as having reached a stalemate for Russia. Having been beaten back by the robust and spirited Ukrainian resistance in Kyiv, the Russian forces are directing their fire power at present on Eastern Ukraine. Their intentions have narrowed down to carving out the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine; the aim being to establish the region as a Russian sphere of influence and buffer state against perceived NATO encirclement.

On the other hand, having failed to the break the back thus far of the Ukraine resistance the Putin regime seems to be intent on demoralizing the resistance by targeting Ukraine civilians and their cities. Right now, most of Eastern Ukraine has been reduced to rubble. The regime’s broad strategy seems to be to capture the region by bombing it out. This strategy was tried out by Western imperialist powers, such as the US and France, in South East Asia some decades back, quite unsuccessfully.

However, by targeting civilians the Putin regime seems to be also banking on the US and its allies committing what could come to be seen as indiscretions, such as, getting more fully militarily and physically involved in the conflict.

To be sure, Russia’s rulers know quite well that it cannot afford to get into a full-blown armed conflict with the West and it also knows that the West would doing its uttermost to avoid an international armed confrontation of this kind that could lead to a Third World War. Both sides could be banked on to be cautious about creating concrete conditions that could lead to another Europe-wide armed conflict, considering its wide-ranging dire consequences.

However, by grossly violating the norms and laws of war in Ukraine Russia could tempt the West into putting more and more of its financial and material resources into strengthening the military capability of the Ukraine resistance and thereby weaken its economies through excessive military expenditure.

That is, the Western military-industrial complex would be further bolstered at the expense of the relevant civilian publics, who would be deprived of much needed welfare expenditure. This is a prospect no Western government could afford to countenance at the present juncture when the West too is beginning to weaken in economic terms. Discontented publics, growing out of shrinking welfare budgets, could only aggravate the worries of Western governments.

Accordingly, Putin’s game plan could very well be to subject the West to a ‘slow death’ through his merciless onslaught on the Ukraine. At the time of writing US President Joe Biden is emphatic about the need for united and firm ‘Transatlantic’ security in the face of the Russian invasion but it is open to question whether Western military muscle could be consistently bolstered amid rising, wide-ranging economic pressures.

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At 80, now serving humanity

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Thaku Chugani! Does this name ring a bell! It should, for those who are familiar with the local music scene, decades ago.

Thaku, in fact, was involved with the original group X-Periments, as a vocalist.

No, he is not making a comeback to the music scene!

At 80, when Engelbert and Tom Jones are still active, catering to their fans, Thaku is doing it differently. He is now serving humanity.

Says Thaku: “During my tenure as Lion District Governor 2006/2007, Dr Mosun Faderin and I visited the poor of the poorest blind school in Ijebu Ode Ogun state, in Nigeria.

“During our visit, a small boy touched me and called me a white man. I was astonished! How could a blind boy know the colour of my skin? I was then informed that he is cornea blind and his vision could be restored if a cornea could be sourced for him. This was the first time in my life that I heard of a cornea transplant. “

And that incident was the beginning of Thaku’s humanity service – the search to source for corneas to restore the vision of the cornea blind.

It was in 2007, when Dr Mosun and Thaku requested Past International President Lion Rohit Mehta, who was the Chief Guest at MD 404 Nigeria Lions convention, at Illorin, in Nigeria, to assist them in sourcing for corneas as Nigeria was facing a great challenge in getting any eye donation, even though there was an established eye bank.

“We did explain our problems and reasons of not being able to harvest corneas and Lion Rohit Metha promised to look into our plea and assured us that he will try his utmost best to assist in sourcing for corneas.”

Nigeria, at that period of time, had a wait list of over 70 cornea blind children and young adults.

“As assured by PIP Lion Rohit Mehta, we got an email from Gautam Mazumdar, and Dr. Dilip Shah, of Ahmedabad, in India, inviting us for World Blind Day

“Our trip was very fruitful as it was World Blind Day and we had to speak on the blind in Nigeria.”

“We were invited by Gautam Mazumdar to visit his eye bank and he explained the whole process of eye banking.

“We requested for corneas and also informed him about our difficulties in harvesting corneas.

“After a long deliberation, he finally agreed to give us six corneas. It was a historical moment as we were going to restore vision of six cornea blind children. To me, it was a great experience as I was privileged to witness cornea transplant in my life and what a moment it was for these children, when their vision was restored.

“Thus began my journey of sight restoration of the cornea blind, and today I have sourced over 1000 corneas and restored vision of the cornea blind in Nigeria, Kenya and India till date.

“Also, I need to mention that this includes corneas to the armed forces, and their family, all over India.

“On the 12th, August, 2018, the Eye Bank, I work with, had Launched Pre-Cut Corneas, which means with one pair of eyes, donated, four Cornea Blind persons sight will be restored.”

Thaku Chugani, who is based in India, says he is now able to get corneas regularly, but, initially, had to carry them personally – facing huge costs as well as international travel difficulties, etc.

However, he says he is so happy that his humanitarian mission has been a huge success.

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