It is estimated that at least 200,000 children in India have severe visual impairment or blindness and approximately 15,000 are in schools for the blind. Although this represents a small percentage of the estimated 5 million blind in India, it is significant in terms of 'blind-years'. Strategies to combat childhood blindness require accurate data on the causes to allocate resources to appropriate preventive and curative services. Since socio-economic factors vary in different areas of this industrializing country data should be representative of the country as a whole. This is the first multi-state study to be undertaken in India using the Record for Children with Blindness and Low Vision from the World Health Organization/PBL Programme. A total of 1411 children in 22 schools from nine states in different geographical zones were examined by an ophthalmologist and optometrist. Of these, 1318 children were severely visually impaired or blind (SVI/BL). The major causes of SVI/BL in this study were: (1) corneal staphyloma, scar and phthisis bulbi (mainly attributable to vitamin A deficiency) in 26.4%; (2) microphthalmos, anophthalmos and coloboma in 20.7%; (3) retinal dystrophies and albinism in 19.3%; and (4) cataract, uncorrected aphakia and amblyopia in 12.3%. This mixed pattern of causes lies in an intermediate position between the patterns seen in developing countries and those seen in industrialised countries. The causes identified indicate the importance both of preventive public health strategies and of specialist paediatric ophthalmic and optical services in the management of childhood blindness in India.