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The Rediff Special/ Archana Masih

'Slum dwellers are treated like shit'

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A Jockin- Magsaysay Award winner Jockin Arputham was stunned after the phone call from Manila on July 20. It took him three hours to recover from the news. The lady on the other side had just told him that he had won the Ramon Magsaysay Award. "First I thought she was talking about someone else, because I have simplified my surname by substituting it with an A. Moreover, it is not the easiest of things to trace my number."

He later learnt that three magazines in Philippines, who were asked to find out about his work, could not even begin work because they did not know how to contact him. Not the easiest of tasks when you have to find a man who lives in a slum outside Mumbai and has his office opposite a row of pavement dwellers in the heart of a Muslim neighbourhood.

But the friendly president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation has no qualms about his humble status; in fact he is proud of it. And feels that whatever success he has had in improving the lot of the scores of poor around him, is because he has worked from within that system, being part of it. "I have had many chances of moving out of the slum but I haven't. I have lived here since I came to Mumbai from Bangalore in 1963 and do not see myself moving out."

For 25 years, this Tamilian from Bangalore has been working for the cause of slum and pavement dwellers. Taking up their issues and making them heard. In association with two other organisations -- the Mahila Milan and Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centre -- he has helped in the resettlement and rehabilitation of numerous slum-dwelling families. Working with the government and its agencies like the municipal corporation, his organisation has helped provide 5,000 homes last year and set a target of another 50,000 in the next two years.

"There is one vital thing that I have learnt from my experiences -- if you have to tackle poverty, you have to make the poor participate in your programmes. It is because this hasn't happened that the government's Slum Rehabilitation Authority has failed," says Jockin.

Revelling at his new-found recognition and politely thanking those calling to congratulate him over the phone, the Magsaysay Award winner does not lose sight of the many harsh truths faced by the poor in India. "Slum dwellers are treated like shit," he says with unabashed candour, "There is no place for them in society."

"I remember when I went to South Africa -- this was before the release of Nelson Mandela. The people were expecting a big change in their lives after his release. I told them -- 'Don't be fools like we in India were before Independence. We thought freedom would fill our streets with milk and honey - but today, 40 years on, our poor don't even have a proper meal to eat.'"

A Jockin in his office Sitting in an office he says he has 'encroached' upon in an old Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation office in Madanpura, central Mumbai, Jockin says his programme now covers 35 cities in India and 10 countries -- mostly in Africa and the Far East. It is a project where the government provides land, while the housing is either constructed by builders without giving them any margin or by individual families themselves. Accommodation can be bought at a subsidised rate -- for as less than Rs 20,000 by slum dwellers.

Jockin, however, gives most of the credit for the success of the programme to female members. And is extremely proud of them. "Women are the only ones who can change their families," he says pointing to the few sitting around him in the office. "You just have to empower them to see the difference. It is because of their savings that these houses have become a reality for their families."

In many ways, they are Jockin's army. His army for change. In good humour he relates how he has used them for collective advantage. "I send them to government offices. These illiterate women -- who are looked down upon as junglees (uncouth). Brash with smelly bodies. The officials don't want them in their offices and can't wait to see the back of them. So the work that would take six months by men, just takes one month for them!"

But it is a work that has its disadvantages too. Government officials think of him as a painful 'bugger'. They know in terms of inducements, a cup of tea is all that'll come their way for Jockin's work. Moreover, not all slum dwellers share his enthusiasm for rehabilitation.

"See that man there," he points to a scruffy, old pavement dweller on the opposite side of the road. "He doesn't want to move out when this slum gets rehabilitated shortly. You know why? Because he owns three trucks which park here. He even has a flat which he has given out for rent. It suits him here. And even if we are successful in moving them, the moment they do so, these chawlwallahs (shanties) opposite will move in. Because some kholis (rooms) here belong to them and have been rented out."

Yet for now, there are other pressing issues. In two days time Jockin is leaving for Cambodia. A guest of the country's prime minister, he will share his expertise in the resettlement of the urban poor with organisations there.

Then at the end of August is the trip to Manila that all five Magsaysay winners make every year. He says he still has not made any preparations for the award ceremony. But is certain how he will use the US$ 50,000 award money. "The award is a recognition of the urban poor movement, it merits that the money be used for the same purpose."

His family, meanwhile, has taken the news quietly. Much in Jockin's style. With his elder daughter married in Bangalore, it was for the younger one to explain to her unlettered mother about the prestigious award. Without any success though. "She thinks I've got a promotion," says Jockin, "I will give Re 1 from the award money to her."

Photographs: Faisal Shariff


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