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 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.