How One Ashoka Fellow In Kolkata Is Helping The Homeless And The Mentally Ill

Homeless. Mentally ill. Living on the street. Filthy. Name forgotten. Family forgotten. Nearly naked. Muttering mysterious words. Lonely and lost.
Sounds familiar?

These are the people we see on the streets every day in our lives. But what do we feel for them? Repulsion? Fear? Mere ignorance? Probably all of them.

Sarbani was different. A powerful woman living in Kolkata, took a different approach towards such people. She set out on a mission to find a way to help them reintegrate in the society. Leaving her well-paying job and registering an NGO – Iswar Sankalp –  were the first 2 steps. The third and the most critical was to find a way to solve what was an insurmountable problem.


The produce from farming is now sold in the city


Mental illness treatment has taken a huge leap over the years. Beginning from an institutional-based approach, which included the atrocities like chaining the patients to bedposts all the way to electrical shock therapy, it is now being widely treated using medicines and rehabilitation techniques. The middle class can surely take this new friendly approach, with support from their family, but what about the homeless mentally ill, who suffer a double blow – mental illness and homelessness. Who will give them the medicines? Who will take care of them?

Sarbani approached the problem in a different way. She believed there would be at least some people in the community who would care for these lost souls, and if identified and educated, could act as proxy families to them. And she was not wrong. Having already identified the homeless mentally ill by exploring the streets of Kolkata, Iswar Sankalp then took on the mission to search for their caregivers, people in the vicinity of the homeless, who could take care of them. They soon found these caregivers in the working class street vendors, like the chaiwalas and kirana store owners, who were more than happy to take ownership.

In 2007, Iswar Sankalp found a near-naked man lying on a garbage dump near the Khidderpore flyover in Kolkata, and noticed that a shopkeeper nearby named Nihal used to give him tea and lunch everyday. They soon met Nihal, who readily agreed to be the man’s caregiver. He also convinced the man to attend a medical camp by Iswar Sankalp. In the camp, the man identified himself as Abdullah, and was diagnosed with hallucinatory schizoaffective disorder.

The night shelter provided by the Municipal Corporation for the mentally ill to stay in.


Within a month, with the help of regular medicines and with Nihal’s care, Abdullah appeared more relaxed. He still communicated in sign language, but after five more months, began to speak. He also started to help Nihal in his shop. As time passed, he recalled that his name was Suresh Kamble, who worked as a radiologist in Mumbai’s Nanavati Hospital. But he insisted that he did not want to return to his family, and instead wanted only to stay with Nihal.

During my recent visit to Kolkata as part of Ashoka’s work (where we work to find these leading social entrepreneurs in the country), I was lucky enough to meet this pair of Abdullah-Nihal, who told me their story. When we asked Nihal how he feels now, he said – “Ab mein theek hoon. Subah 7 baje mein apna kaam shuru karta hoon, aur har din mein dawai bhi leta hoon” (I am fine now. I get up at 7am and start my work, and even take medicines every day). When I ask Nihal about him, he said – “Jab inhe pehli baar dekha tha, tab inki haalat bahut kharab thi. Yeh kachde ke upar mila the. Par ab yeh theek hai. Kaam bhi bahut acha karta hai” (When I found him, his condition was very bad. I found him over a garbage dump. But now he is fine. He works very well too.”

During our visit to the shop. From Left: Abhilash, Abdullah, Nihal, Rahul. Sitting: Sarbani​


After I finished talking to them, I turned to Sarbani, not knowing what to say, stopped dead in my tracks. But she soon filled in the silence, saying –

This is philanthropy in its true spirit. It is not just what the Tata’s and Birla’s do, but what each and every one of us do for others around us.”

With this belief in her heart, Sarbani, along with the community, has helped to identify more than 200 homeless mentally ill people through this community caregiver model. Not just that, she has also created roles for other people in the society like the police, the municipal corporation, the primary health care centers, the farmers etc. to help in taking care of these forgotten souls. Having already helped thousands, she plans to perfect her model before scaling further.

The field visit to Iswar Sankalpa was an experience to realise the harsh realities on ground that exist. But what was even more wonderful was to witness the willpower of some human beings to solve these harsh realities. If every single person can play their part in the society to make it a better place to live in, in whatever capacity possible, the biggest, unsolvable problems like these probably wouldn’t seem so big after all. Instead of a world where we ignore problems, we could have a world where we solve them. And may be, we might reach a point where the rate of solving problems can overpower the rate at which they are increasing.  What do you think? Are you ready to play your part in the social change game?


The mentally ill working in the farms, now reintegrated back in the society .