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
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.