Providing shelters for pavement dwellers, and a shot at a safer and more dignified life, is the aim of an initiative being rolled out in Surat

Kiranbhai Solanki lives with his family on the pavement dividing the busy ‘bus rapid transport’ corridor under a flyover on Surat’s Varacha Road. The 25-year-old Mr Solanki, who works at a nearby tea stall, courts danger every day as buses whizz past his makeshift home but that does not seem to faze him. “I was born and raised on the pavement here,” he says.

Mr Solanki is one of 36,144 people — according to the official count — classified as pavement dwellers in Surat. That’s not a pretty statistic for India’s leading hub for the diamond processing and textile industries and one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

For millions of such people in India’s bustling cities, the basic right to a roof over their heads remains a pipe dream. Forced to sleep in the open and exposed to the extremities of nature, the risk of being robbed or run over by reckless drivers, these urban homeless, the majority of them migrants, have scant refuge.

Residents of the night shelter located on the campus of the SMIMER Hospital in Surat

Far from enough

There are 84,822 homeless people in Gujarat and Surat accounts for the largest chunk of them. The city has 28 night shelters, or ren baseras, operated and managed by the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC). The shelters, operational from 8pm to 8am, are far from enough in number and they can barely accommodate 10-12 people each. To make matters worse — and smelly — they are located above public toilets.

Plugging the shortfall in, and the shortcomings of, such spaces is the intent propelling the ‘shelters for urban homeless’ (SUH) project initiated by the SMC, which engaged the Tata Trusts in 2018 to help run these shelters in accordance with the guidelines prescribed by the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana - National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM).

The idea is to set up a series of ‘model shelters’ across Surat, one for every 100,000 of the city’s inhabitants and each capable of accommodating at least 100 homeless. The objective is to provide, by 2020, succour and some measure of comfort to around 5,000 homeless migrants. In addition to the new shelters, the Trusts are also helping upgrade the SMC’s existing shelters.

The Trusts got started on the initiative — which is a component of their larger Surat Urban Habitat Project — by taking SMC officials on a trip to examine the effectiveness of a variety of night shelters in the Delhi region.“The exposure and learnings from the visit gave us ideas on how we could design and operate large capacity shelters with enhanced services in Surat city,” says Gayatri Jariwala, deputy commissioner, SMC.

The first of Surat’s model shelters was thrown open in October 2018 and it was a vast improvement on the ren baseras, the most important being that it allows the homeless to stay through the day as well as at night. Technical support, capacity building and training the shelter’s residents on personal hygiene and health are among the efforts undertaken by the Trusts to maximise the impact of the project.

The work done by the Trusts in making the project a success has been much appreciated. “We have the infrastructure and the funds but that alone is not sufficient,” says M Thennarasan, the SMC commissioner. “The Trusts plays a key role in creating capacity, bringing the homeless into the shelters, and in sensitising the staff about their requirements.”

The challenges facing the Trusts and the SMC are many, and a few of them unusual. For instance, it takes convincing to get the homeless to leave their roadside dwellings. Mr Solanki, for one, prefers living on the pavement. Even through his wife’s pregnancy and within 48 hours of the child’s delivery, he chose to stay on at his Varacha Road dwelling, abutting the BRTS corridor. His ageing parents shift every night to a SMC shelter but he prefers to stay put. “The mosquitoes at the night shelter trouble my children,” says Mr Solanki by way of explanation. “Out here the open space and the breeze makes it comfortable.”

Many of Surat’s homeless think like Mr Solanki. The reasons offered are many: the shelters are located far away, street-side living means they are close to their workplaces, their belongings cannot be stored in the shelters, there are no rules to follow on the roads...

There are other reasons. Surat has more than 100 flyovers and bridges with pay-and-use toilets below them. These serve the needs of the homeless people quite well and the Tapi river flowing through the city provides easy access to water for their daily needs.

The project team has worked hard to get the homeless to shift to the shelters. Initially, members went each night to places where the homeless reside. These ‘rescue operations’ targeted the most vulnerable among them: migrant families living with children, adolescents, women and the aged. They distributed leaflets soliciting public support in identifying potential beneficiaries.

A space to be secure in

The spanking new permanent shelter at Takli Faliya in the Umarwada area of Surat is a ‘model’ facility in every sense of the word. The safety and dignity of those coming through the gates are primary concerns and it shows.

Potential beneficiaries have to undergo a screening process before being admitted. They are required to fill a consent form to relocate to the shelter and share their identity documents. This is often a challenge, even though many of the homeless have some form of identification.

The shelter management team obtains all the necessary information from new entrants: the street where they were living and for how long, their place of origin, the number of years they have been homeless, their family and medical history, their education, occupation and monthly income.

All of this data is recorded and maintained along with the person’s thumb impression and a photograph. “We want to ensure that all those who deserve get accommodation on a priority basis,” says Anubhav Garg, project manager with the Tata Trusts’ Surat Urban Habitat Project.

Running the shelter is an intensive operation and the staff here has to work round the clock. Emergencies, quarrels and the occasional bout of violent behaviour are par for the course and there have been instances of people being turned away or removed from the shelter.

“We have to be extra careful about who to accept into the shelter because we cannot be sure of their antecedents,” says Tarun Mishra, general secretary of Jyoti Samajik Sewa Sanstha (JSSS), the non-profit managing the shelter, which has a capacity of 158 beds. “The priority is to accommodate families and senior citizens.”

For Bhagvat Chavada and his family, the shelter home offers safety, security and dignity

Worth the effort

The team’s exertions have borne fruit. The model shelter, with place for 158 people, is nearly full. Situated in Takli Faliya in the Umarwada area, it has bunk beds across three floors. Each floor has a reverse osmosis filter and cooler for safe drinking water, common toilets and bathrooms, and CCTV security cameras installed in the gallery, with safe deposit lockers allotted to all residents. Meals are organised by two local social welfare agencies. Breakfast is free of cost for about 50 people (priority is given to the handicapped, the ageing, the infirm, and children and pregnant women). Dinner costs just 10.

For some of the shelter’s new residents, adapting to its regimented environment has not been easy. Take 32-year-old construction worker Bhagwat Chavda, who is busy making rotis for his pregnant wife in the open space within the shelter premises. “My children and I eat the meals provided here but my wife needs home-cooked food,” he explains. “Our children are safe here, though.”

The SMC has appointed Jyoti Samajik Sewa Sanstha (JSSS), a Delhi-based nonprofit, to manage the shelter and provide handholding care and support to shelter beneficiaries. That involves the upkeep of the facility, managing conflicts that often break out, and tending to the residents’ medical needs. The shelter management agency also organises health camps twice a month for the residents.

The permanent model shelter has delivered comfort, safety and security to those who desperately need it, but the sustainability factor of the project remains to be settled. While the SMC funds the running of the model shelter through the Gujarat DAY-NULM programme — and another permanent shelter is on the anvil — this approach may not be viable in the long run.

Viability on the agenda

“These permanent shelters cannot be made sustainable without a revenue model,” says Damodar Mishra, a senior programme manager with the Trusts. One solution mooted is to bring corporate entities and other organisations to the project. Another is to get beneficiaries, especially those staying for long periods, to contribute for the shelters’ upkeep.

The expectation is that the sustainability part will be sorted out in time. Meanwhile, there are other facets being dealt with. The social and economic uplift of beneficiaries is a core purpose of the project. That explains the effort underway to provide residents with jobs, supporting those who are street vendors and linking them to government social security schemes and the formal banking system.

Interventions of this kind are expected to better integrate Surat’s homeless migrants with the mainstream, enhance their livelihood options and, crucially, enable them to live a more dignified life. “Every city has its haves and have-nots but there shouldn’t be apathy for the latter,” says Mr Thennarasan. “We should not leave them behind in our progress.”

Kajalben Solanki and her child stay at the SMIMER Hospital shelter