Xavier’s Social Service Society, Ahmedabad
‘Men for Others’
Among the young and the middle aged of Ahmedabad, a city bitterly scarred by hate and venom, Father Ramiro Erviti has his band of followers and devotees. They maybe silent, afraid to speak out against the insanity and irrationality of hatred. But given a small opening, these young and not so young men speak highly of the man who tried to make them "Men for Others."
This ability to reach out to the young and his great compassion for the poor drove Father Erviti, a Jesuit priest. He came to India in the early fifties leaving his native Basqueland in Spain and enrolled himself as a teacher at St. Xavier’s School, Ahmedabad.
Any project for the underprivileged living among the squalor of the slums in Ahmedabad today automatically draws in the institution set up by Father Ramiro Erviti, the St. Xavier’s Social Service Society (SXSSS), in October 1976. The institute was a direct response to the educational, health, organisational and environmental needs of poor and marginalised communities of the slums and villages of Gujarat.
For the young, energetic students who were privileged to know Fr Erviti for his ability to take them away from bookish knowledge to the real and experimental, he is missed for the rock climbing and mountaineering courses for the youth, both rich and poor. His successful expeditions to Hanuman Tibba in the Himalayas are talked of with nostalgia. Fr. Erviti’s love for the environment arose not only because of an appreciation of the beauty of nature; he also wanted to do something about the rampant destruction of the environment. So, wherever he could, he began social afforestation programmes, encouraged children to grow trees, save water and protect the environment.
However, it was the way in which he reached out to the poor and marginalised of the slums and villages of Gujarat — week after week he took batches of students to visit the slums, the leprosy hospital, the government hospitals, and the villages around — that was exceptional. He believed that our ability to listen to the poor and the suffering was an integral part of education. He hoped that being sensitised, the students would one day become not merely benefactors, but agents of social change.
Whenever any natural or manmade disaster struck, Fr. Erviti was always there, with a dedicated band of students, colleagues and well-wishers, equipped with tonnes of material help. When thousands were affected during the floods in the River Sabarmati in Ahmedabad or the River Narmada in South Gujarat earlier, during the Morbi dam burst; or during communal riots which rocked Ahmedabad so frequently, relief and rehabilitation was always Fr. Erviti’s top priority.
After setting up the SXSSS, under his inspiration and guidance, a group of young architects and other professionals, came together to form the Ahmedabad Study Action Group (ASAG). The floods of 1973 on the River Sabarmati washed away the hutments of thousands of slum dwellers who lived on the banks of the River Sabarmati. Thanks to the initiatives of Fr. Erviti and the expertise of ASAG — thousands of those rendered homeless were rehabilitated in a unique project called ‘Sanklitnagar’.
Work initially began in Sanklitnagar and then spread to other slums of the city. Around that time, Fr. Erviti also reached out to thousands of adivasi migrants who came to Ahmedabad in search of work. He was instrumental in helping them start an organisation for themselves.
Fr Erviti met with an untimely death — due to dehydration, exhaustion and other internal complications — while on a mountaineering expedition. Fifteen years after his death, however, as it nears its Silver Jubilee, SXSSS still continues in the tradition set by its founder, with greater zeal and enthusiasm. It is involved today in 20 slum settlements and in several rural areas. Its work focuses on advocacy and human rights with a strong bias on the promotion of communal harmony, justice and peace.