Freedom from urban poverty | Jockin Arputham

Jockin Arputham can be an onlooker or a heckler, depending on where he is and who he is up against. At a delegate meet of Slum Dwellers International (SDI), an alliance of organizations across Asia, South Africa and Latin America that work for the rights and uplift of shack and slum dwellers, he comfortably takes the back bench. Arputham, current SDI president and founder of the National Slum Dwellers Association (NSDA), and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, has led from the front for nearly 40 years.

Sheela Patel, director and founder of The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (Sparc), NSDA’s partner in the fight for the urban poor in India, moderates the meeting at a hotel on Grant Road, Mumbai, while Arputham sits in the last row listening intently to presentations or chatting with friends in the hotel lobby.

Most of the time, Arputham, or “Jockin sir", as the slum dwellers of Mumbai call him, is every bit a Dharavi man—astute, resourceful and intrepid. Since the 1970s, he has been the voice of Mumbai’s urban poor that successive governments have not been able to ignore. He has made the slum dweller’s life visible in this overpowering, forgetful city. He has guerrilla tactics for “no eviction without alternative" drives—holding on to a stay order till eviction is about to start, causing the police inconvenience; sending unwashed women in a large group to police stations so the officers on duty listen to them quickly and let them go; camouflaging his small frame behind dupattas and saris of women to avoid police arrest; and gathering thousands together to paralyse streets. On paper, Arputham has been arrested more than 50 times.

I sometimes regret not fulfilling my family duties...I have only thought of myself as a bridge between the urban poor and the urban rich.

Arputham has been heard perhaps because he has not compromised on the belief that development for the urban poor has to be “bottoms up". “You can’t come to Dharavi, which I consider a special economic zone (SEZ) in itself, producing lakhs of idlis every morning for Mumbai’s cheap breakfast, where various other such industries flourish, and say you have a model from Shanghai and you believe that it will work here. It won’t," Arputham says.

“None of the poor are living at anyone’s mercy. They are earning." He has been talking to corporators, politicians, ministers in the state and Central governments, about slum housing and loans for more than two decades. “The first step is affordable housing of course, but that’s not enough. Give them small, interest-free loans to buy a one-room place of their own. If they can’t pay the loan back, ask them to leave. That will give us a sense of ownership and a sense of belonging to the city, because after all you Mumbaikars can’t function without us. We do all your work," he says.

Arputham’s differences with the Dharavi Redevelopment Project committee are on issues of “enforced development". “I hope real estate companies enter Dharavi soon too. Hope residential societies and slums can coexist, and gain from each other." Sparc’s Patel believes the Indian media has often written carelessly about Arputham—ignoring his inclusive philosophy for slum development. “He is not just a rabble-rouser, alienating the need for developing a city’s infrastructure."

It’s mostly women who work out of Arputham’s pad at Dharavi—an office, a living space as well as a hub for NSDA workers. Arputham believes seven of every 10 workers in an organization should be women. The NSDA works closely with the women of Mahila Milan, a nationwide collective of women’s savings groups that aims to empower women from slums, shanties and pavements. “Why I have got here today and why my work has yielded results is because I got women from my slum to work for me. They communicate better and understand big, complex problems much better than men," Arputham says.

Women surround him wherever he is; they are doing the most crucial jobs, his close colleagues at the NSDA say. Arputham’s desk is a large mattress with big pillows and bolsters—imagine a small-town cloth trader sitting cross-legged on his gadda and doing business. His awards adorn the walls and there is an endless supply of sweet, milky tea from the kitchen. He eats little and sleeps less, say NSDA workers. “He dreams and plots with alert, wide open eyes," says Guna Shekhar, a worker close to him, whom Arputham considers one of his successors in field work.

In nearly four decades, Arputham, now 67, has enabled the relocation and rehabilitation of 37,000 families in Mumbai. According to the 2011 census, around 65 million people were living in slums across India, and 60% of Mumbai’s 12 million people were in slums. The census defines these slums as “unfit for human habitation" for a variety of reasons.

Starting from Mankhurd’s Janata Colony, a gigantic slum destroyed in 1976 to make way for the housing of the neighbouring Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc), Arputham’s field of operations has expanded from the slum to the city to the country and now, to the world. His politics is the same everywhere: Acknowledge the urban poor as one of you, share the city’s resources with them, find ways to live with them.

“In all countries the basic problems are the same; housing, sanitation, water. Comparatively speaking, a slum in India is likely to be safer than, say, one in São Paulo. Here, everybody is looking for a chance to sell something, make money out of selling whatever he gets his hands on. In many countries in Africa and Latin America, mostly cash-crop countries, they are waiting to steal or waiting for someone to rescue them," Arputham says.

In the world of “Jockin sir", politicians are outcasts. “All of them, including now Medha Patkar and Mayank Gandhi and all the Aam Aadmi Party politicians who made pro-poor speeches in their campaigns, are anti-poor and anti-slums. We have never seen them, they have never engaged with us." He believes there is still no real, sustained development in slums; every government has failed. “Man, woman and child sleep without a curtain openly on streets. What kind of a country is this? Why are they here, who let them come here and then let them rot like this?" he asks, in the polemic fashion he has mastered over the years, and which has got the attention of policymakers the world over.

For Rose Molokoane from Oukasie near Pretoria, South Africa, representing her country at the SDI meet in Mumbai is familiar territory. She has known Arputham since 1991. Their friendship goes back to an SDI conference in the UK, when Molokoane first heard Arputham speak. “He spoke out of the experience of his own life, while we were trying to find solutions from outside, trying to find precedents. I walked up to him and asked if he would visit South Africa." Back home, she convinced organizations working on similar issues to invite him to work with them for a week. He went back many times after that first visit.

He has led presentations on issues related to slum dwellers at the national department of human settlement, South Africa. “There was a lady named Lindiwe Sisulu who was the chair of the department. Jockin floored her with a speech. She said she saw her father in him, an anti-apartheid activist." Molokoane says South Africa has the second largest presence in SDI today largely because of Arputham’s constant support and effort.

Arputham is a midnight’s child. On 15 August 1947, hours after the tricolour was hoisted, he was born in the Kolar Gold Fields, Karnataka, to an upper-middle-class Tamil family. His father worked at the local goldmine, and was known and paid well for his precise work at the blast sites. “I remember two boys used to chaperone me to school and fetch me back home. But by the time I was 18, there was no food in the house when I returned from school." The family’s ebbing fortunes forced him to think of leaving.

“I left one day for Mumbai, like millions do every day. I stayed on the streets for three years and then found a place at the Janata Colony in Mankhurd, and found a job." In his early 20s, he formed a company called Lift and Shift, hiring local boys and girls to clear garbage, clean the ground and move machines at Barc. Shekhar, whom Arputham has mentored since he was an adolescent, says: “For as long as I remember, he could gather people around him in minutes. He would just draw crowds and everybody would listen." At the Janata Colony, he set up an informal school where older children taught younger children. (Arputham himself has studied till class VII, and says he “couldn’t teach anyone anything".)

“My first experience with the power of community was when I got thousands of children from the Janata Colony to carry a load of mosquito-breeding garbage wrapped in paper and dump it in the nearest municipal office. Our complaints had gone unheard for too long," he says. The Janata Colony received threats of eviction in the 1970s and Arputham staged many rallies, a few also in New Delhi, before prime minister Indira Gandhi met him and promised him safety. But in 1976 the municipal authorities razed the colony. Arputham moved to Dharavi, which became the universe from where he would reach slum dwellers all over the world.

“I sometimes regret not fulfilling my family duties," says Arputham, talking about his decision to marry in the early 1970s. “We separated soon because I could not think of providing just for one family. I have only thought of myself as a bridge between the urban poor and the urban rich." He says he talks to his three daughters, who now have their own families, every day. Like all grandparents, he can’t get enough of his grandchildren.

Everybody in that room at the Krishna Palace Hotel, Grant Road, who had congregated to discuss strategies for SDI hoped the peace prize would come home. “When he wins it, it will be a win for the power of negotiation, and for the cause of fighting for what you are," says Molokoane, almost in tears.

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