Place, Work, Folk is a fortnightly column in The Hindu Sunday Magazine by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, which is inspired by Patrick Geddes and analyzes current urban issues in India and beyond.
A couple sells vegetables on the street, humbly displaying them on a piece of cloth laid on the ground. At night they take shelter under the wife’s sari, which is their first shelter in the city. Their trunk, which contains all their possessions also acts like a table to display their goods. They eventually fix a cloth over their head as protection from the sun. This makeshift shop slowly consolidates and becomes a home. Multiply this a thousand times and a settlement emerges. This is how Jockin Arputham described the genesis of a slum. A place rich in humanity and poor in infrastructure.
For generations of urban practitioners and social activists, the lifework of Jockin Arputham, the late president of the Slum Dwellers International and Founder-president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation, remains an inspiration.
He was one of the first voices to bring the urban poor to the forefront of the Indian national political imagination. He was the global voice of Mumbai’s slum dwellers and lead the way for discussions on urban policy and housing worldwide, thanks to his activism from the 1970s onwards.
A true visionary, he made a difference to thousands of families, reclaiming their contested citizenship and articulating their right to housing.
On this journey, he created strategic partnerships with like-minded people from different backgrounds, especially with Sheela Patel of Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) and Celine D’Cruz, of Mahila Milan. Together they formed an unstoppable, unbreakable alliance, which could persuade local communities, institutions, politicians, government bodies, financiers, leaving no one behind. They got things done in contexts that they understood from within.
Although Jockin became a major voice in the global debate on affordable housing and slum upgrading, he had little patience for academic debate and political correctness or well-wishers who were wary of getting their hands dirty in the real world. “Top-down, bottom-up, bottom-down who cares? I get things done.”
He belonged to the world where problems are solved face to face and stories are shared orally. He had mesmerising tales of early activism and escape from political persecution during the Emergency. He always flavoured his anecdotes with passion and humour. His office was open for anyone to drop in. He spent hours listening to people and responding to their demands. He welcomed everyone warmly, often playfully mocking them in his inimitable style but always taking their issues and point of view seriously.
He came from a moment where the urban realm was still struggling to get noticed in a political atmosphere that had subsumed all rhetoric of the ‘common people’ into an abstract, national framework — dominated mostly by rural concerns. His first-hand experience of living in slums shaped his fierce desire to visibilise and empower the urban poor. He had a unique capacity and legitimacy to put the spotlight on the struggle of the needs of marginalised populations.
His international awards and nominations have made him a global figure, exporting his practices and oratorial passion to countries around the world, even shaping the rhetoric of major institutional bodies, including the United Nations, through his participation in global discussions.
Today, a week after his demise, Dharavi in Mumbai where he was particularly active and respected, remembers him through a simple, poster titled ‘Slum King’, on 90-ft road. No doubt this would have embarrassed him, but perhaps he would have laughed it away as well. In many ways he was the lord of the neighbourhood, transforming the lives of several thousand residents in the most practical and audacious way possible, actually making sure that the system, with all its flaws and problems, delivered its promises of providing homes.