The National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), founded in the mid 1970s, is a national organisation of community groups and leaders who live in slums and informal settlements across India. NSDF mobilises the urban poor to come together, articulate their concerns and find solutions to the problems they face. Today, led by President A. Jockin, the NSDF works with about half a million households in the country.
The National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) in India was established by Jockin Arputham when he fought on behalf of a community of 70,000 to appeal a 1976 eviction order.
In the 1980s, NSDF formed an alliance with Mahila Milan and SPARC, and this alliance became the basis for establishing Slum Dwellers International in 1996.
In 1999, National Slum Dwellers Federation won the UN Habitat Scroll of Honour Award.
Jockin Arputham has worked for more than 40 years in slums and shanty towns, building representative organizations into powerful partners with governments and international agencies for the betterment of urban living. Arputham is the president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation which he founded in the 70s and of Slum Dwellers International which networks slum and shack dweller organizations and federations from over twenty countries across the world. The National Slum Dwellers Federation works very closely with Mahila Milan, a collective of savings groups formed by women living on pavements and in slums across India, and with SPARC, a Mumbai-based NGO, and together they have been instrumental is supporting tens of thousands of the urban poor access housing and sanitation. He has also worked with the police to set up ‘police panchayats’ in many of the informal settlements in Mumbai. Here, for the first time, police are assigned to work in these settlements and are supported by a committee of ten residents from the community (three men seven women)
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.
National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF)
The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres
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