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Santosh Verma for Asiaweek.

A Global Message

Jockin Arputham
International Understanding
Recognized for extending the lessons of community building in India to Southeast Asia and Africa and helping the urban poor of two continets improve their lives

They know Jockin Arputham's name in the slums of Bangkok, in Phnom Penh, Colombo, Manila and Vientiane, as well as in a host of towns in Africa where the poor and dispossessed huddle. The 53-year-old Indian was once like them — homeless, scorned and crushed by poverty. Today, he is revered as a man who has inspired hundreds of thousands to believe in themselves and in their right to a decent place in society.

Of all the Asians working to improve the lot of the region's poor, few have a story to tell as stirring and colorful as Arputham's. At the age of 18, he left his home in Bangalore to try his luck in Bombay (now Mumbai). He finished up on the streets, unable to speak the local language and seemingly destined to become just another fleck of flotsam in the city's sea of humanity. Still, using his skills as a carpenter, he picked up occasional work, sometimes taking his fellow-streetsleepers with him to do odd jobs. Slowly a community built up around those workers, and from that community grew a school of sorts where hundreds of urchins would gather to glean what they could from their "teachers." As a sense of self-esteem took hold, Arputham decided to rid the neighborhood of a stinking garbage dump that the city authorities refused to do anything about. He and the youngsters marched on the local administration offices, where they each dumped a parcel of rubbish on the doorstep. He recalls: "Soon, mountains of garbage covered the entire entrance to the offices. By the time we got back to our homes, angry civic officials were in the area looking for me. Before long, though, education officials came to visit our district and garbage trucks appeared for the first time in years. The dump was cleared. That's how my work in the slums began."

In the early years, Arputham was an urban guerrilla. Often on the run from the authorities, he worked to block slum-clearance programs, including the demolition of his own district, known as Janata Colony, which was earmarked for the Atomic Energy Department. His National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), which he formed in 1974, barricaded roads, organized mass demonstrations, secured stay orders and fought the eviction order all the way up to the Supreme Court. In the end, the residents lost Janata Colony — and Arputham realized that there was a better way than taking on City Hall in a battle of wills and strength. He switched from resistance to what he calls a "constructive development approach." His aim: to help communities make the transition from slums to better neighborhoods — by being the primary agents of change.

In 1986, Arputham linked his federation with two complementary organizations, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers and Mahila Milan, a network of women's collectives. The three groups share a common belief that slum dwellers can learn the tools of self-reliance and, in cooperation with their peers and other partners, enjoy secure dwellings and safer, healthier neighborhoods. Their program includes savings circles run by women, and involves complex projects such as income generation, neighborhood improvement schemes, and, often, the design and construction of new housing projects in post-eviction relocation sites. The NSDF now spans 21 Indian cities and does or inspires similar work in several Asian countries and in Africa.

Atmakusumah Astraatmadja:
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communications Arts
Liang Congjie: Public Service
Jesse M. Robredo:
Government Service
Aruna Roy: Community Leadership

In awarding Arputham the 2000 Ramon Magsaysay Foundation Award for International Understanding, the trustees praised the way he has helped the urban poor of two continents improve their lives by learning from one another. When news of the award spread, tributes began to pour in. William Cobbett, head of the Shelter branch in Mumbai of the United Nations Center for Human Settlements, said one of Arputham's greatest achievements was "to demand a seat at the table, to decide his own agenda and not merely listen to government." Somsook Boonyabancha, managing director of Bangkok's Urban Community Development Fund, identified another of his gifts: "Jockin understands the 'people' way of doing things."

Arputham lives with his wife and 21-year-old schoolteacher daughter in the same 20-square-meter home he moved into after he lost the battle for Janata Colony. He has now stepped down as president of the federation, but his work goes on with the same commitment and energy as before. And, even though his tactics have changed from the early guerrilla days, his emotions have not. "All I say is, don't discriminate against the poor. We are not making unreasonable demands. We don't live the way we do out of choice."

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