- ARPUTHAM, a Mumbai slum dweller and activist, sought alliance with other leaders of informal settlements and formed in 1969 the Bombay Slum Dwellers Federation in order to resist eviction and to secure land tenure and services for their community members.
- ARPUTHAM moved beyond the problem of evictions to helping communities make advantageous transitions from slums to better neighborhoods—transitions in which they themselves were the primary agents of change.
- In 1985, ARPUTHAM linked his federation with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC). Together, NSDF and SPARC created Mahila Milan, a network of women’s collectives.
- The federation facilitates housing loans and assists in negotiations with government about evictions, demand for free relocation sites, and subsidized city services.
- The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “his extending the lessons of community building in India to Southeast Asia and Africa and helping the urban poor of two continents improve their lives by learning from one another.”
It is a commonplace phenomenon of our times that vast millions of Asia’s people eke out the days and years of their lives in city slums. In these makeshift neighborhoods, life goes on without the most basic services and with the constant threat of eviction. In Mumbai (Bombay), India, alone, some six million people live in such communities. Jockin Arputham knows this world intimately, for it is his world. As founder and leader of India’ s National Slum Dwellers Federation, Arputham has made it his lifelong endeavor to change this world for the better.
Arputham was born and raised in the gold fields of Karnataka. Never completing high school, he moved to Mumbai when he was eighteen. Here he discovered his true calling when fellow slum dwellers facing eviction rallied to his leadership. He became an activist. Seeking strength in numbers to resist eviction and to secure land tenure and services, Arputham made common cause with leaders of other informal settlements. In 1969, he formed the Bombay Slum Dwellers Federation, which he expanded in 1974 to become the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF). Today NSDF’s membership spans thirty-four Indian cities.
The federation’s early years were dangerous ones and Arputham was often on the run. Gradually, however, he began to move beyond the problem of evictions and to help communities make advantageous transitions from slums to better neighborhoods’ transitions in which they themselves were the primary agents of change. This meant abandoning confrontational tactics and persuading government that poor people can be competent and responsible collaborators.
In 1985, Arputham linked his federation with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC). Together, NSDF and SPARC created Mahila Milan, a network of women’s collectives. These collaborating organizations shared a common belief: slum dwellers can learn the tools of self-reliance and in cooperation with their peers and NGO partners, achieve secure dwellings and safer, healthier neighborhoods. Their approach begins with savings circles run by women, then advances to complex projects such as income generation, neighborhood improvement schemes, and, often, the design and construction of new housing projects in post-eviction relocation sites. Through site visits and learning exchanges that tap the membership’s vast know-how, skills in money management, project planning, and construction are transferred directly from one member community to another.
Meanwhile, the federation facilitates housing loans and assists in negotiations with government about evictions, demands for free relocation sites, and subsidized municipal services. Arputham himself is constantly on the front lines, dialoguing with community members; resolving conflicts; facilitating exchanges; and negotiating with officials, politicians, and banks.
Through the same sorts of slum-to-slum learning exchanges that he initiated in India, Arputham has now extended his efforts to several neighboring countries. For ten years, he has assisted urban poor communities in South Africa to organize themselves and work effectively with the government, resulting in thousands of new low-cost homes. In Cambodia, he has helped the Squatter and Urban Poor Federation establish its credibility with government, leading to Cambodia’s first government-sponsored resettlement program for squatters. Likewise, Arputham has exported his federation’s community-organizing techniques and practical know-how to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, and several countries in Africa.
Arputham has now stepped down as president of the federation. But as a friend says, he still ” works seven days a week, day and night, everywhere.” And he still has plenty of advice. Listen to women, he says, “They talk sense.” And when meeting with the government, “Go armed with a solution, not a problem.”
In electing Jockin Arputham to receive the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, the board of trustees recognizes his extending the lessons of community building in India to Southeast Asia and Africa and helping the urban poor of two continents improve their lives by learning from one another.
Excellencies, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, closest old friends, slum dwellers from Asia and Africa, dearest Mahila Milan, SPARC, Ladies and Gentlemen
I would like to thank the Board of Trustees of the Magsaysay Award Foundation for recognising the struggle of the urban poor and the creative initiatives of the urban poor all over the world
This award has come at the right time, when the urban poor face exclusion all over the world. This award recognises and acknowledges how the urban poor themselves are trying to bring about meaningful change by their own efforts.
By choosing to award me with this honour, you honour all the poor in cities around the world who are seeking change – change not just for ourselves in our own lives but also for the good of the cities in which we have to live together. Thank you.
This award means a lot to me because of the people who have received it before me. I think of Father Jeorge Anzorena who came to my own small hut twenty years ago. He looked up and down at me and I wondered who this new person was. Until now he has remembered me and supported our struggle in all the ways he could. He has been especially supportive of our building of a network among the urban poor. I am proud to be part of this struggle for justice and of the Magsaysay Award family.
Let me look back to the time when I was fighting for drinking water, for sanitation and for a better quality of life in Janata Colony in Bombay – the slum where I lived and still live. How has the struggle moved forward and developed since Father Anzorena first came to visit? The biggest change is our movement through many countries as the urban poor have developed the means and will to link together and share across cities, across countries, across continents and across the world. In Janata Colony our houses were demolished in 1976. In 1991, I landed in South Africa and we decided to work together as Asians and Africans in this struggle against forced eviction and demolition. We decided to work together for the development of our communities. That led to the formation of the international networks of Slum/Shack Dwellers International – SDI – a network that is supported by others such as the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. We have new partnerships and instead of being arrested as we speak about poverty and development, we find ourselves sitting at tables with the authorities negotiating solutions.
We are able to speak for ourselves within our cities, nationally and internationally. We have broken the culture of silence of the poor. No group has been more effective in doing this than the women of Mahila Milan. They use their daily savings and their own information collection and dissemination process to make themselves heard and to provide the basis of a dialogue between the poor and the authorities in the cities where they live. Now we are urban poor with a loud voice but we also want partners – partners who hear what we have to say and who are prepared to struggle with us.
By giving this award to me you have declared support for the urban poor struggle and I thank you for this commitment on my own behalf and also on behalf of the urban poor all over the world. This award is now a torch in my hand, a light to shed on the invisibility in which we were shut, and from where we have moved forward.
In this new light I would like to invite your excellency President Estrada, along with the people of the Philippines, to join me in showing how secure tenure can be used as a strong and important step in helping people to escape the trap of poverty that insecurity brings.
Jockin Arputham of India was not to the manner born, but neither was he born to extreme poverty, as his work for the past twenty-eight years may tend to suggest. His paternal grandfather was a village magistrate in Tamil Nadu who owned vast tracts of land, but the family’s fortune dwindled when the old man was killed after having sent a bandit to prison. His widow fled the village with her two young children and ended up in the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka, thirty-four kilometers from Bangalore. Kolar was owned and managed by the British and, at the time, was one of the largest private gold mines in India.
Not having had the benefit of higher education, Jockin’s father, Chinapan Arputham, had to content himself working as a carpenter in the Kolar Gold Fields. But he rose to become a foreman and was chief engineer by the time he retired. He was also a freedom fighter affiliated with the National Congress Party.
Jockin, the second of eight children, was born in Irudaya Puram in the Kolar Gold Fields on September 15, 1946. He was a sickly boy who almost died of smallpox in early childhood. He was raised by his grandmother, who was the real authority in the Arputham household. His mother, Pariporanaman, was a simple woman who did the chores and kept to the background. Both she and her husband were devout Catholics who spent much time in church. Jockin recalls that he prayed often, in church and at home. He started his schooling at the Kolar Gold Fields School, which was run by Indian Catholic priests and nuns who used English as their medium of instruction. His parents wanted Jockin and his brothers to enter the seminary, but the priesthood held no attraction for him.
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