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August 3, 2000
A slum dweller's saga
Last week, a non-matriculate slum dweller in Mumbai won one of the world's most prestigious awards. The Magsaysay.
Joachim Arputham, 53, was born exactly one year before India won Independence in the Kolar Gold Fields. His parents were Tamils. They were originally well off but by the time he was 16, his father had lost everything. Young Joachim, frustrated by his poverty, ran away to Bangalore. From there, like thousands of young people from all over India, he caught a train to Mumbai and landed right in the midst of one of the city's most ghastly slums. In Chembur.
He knew carpentry but could not get a job. Instead of letting frustration get the better of him, he assembled his friends and formed a local band. Every evening, they would get together, sing and play music, using Dalda cans, glasses and spoons, and whatever tin utensils they could lay their hands on. That is how the bonding began. Since nobody in the slum could pronounce his name, he called himself Jockin. All of five feet nothing, Jockin slowly became the local favourite and using his bonding skills, started a small school for the slum kids. To teach them ABC.
What bothered Jockin most was the way people treated slum dwellers despite the fact that many among them were educated and had decent jobs. The slums were squalid and had no sanitation, no water, no toilets. Those who lived there were treated worse than street dogs. Leave alone cleaning the slums, the BMC did not even bother to collect the garbage.
So, one morning, Jockin bought a bunch of old newspapers and told his pupils to pick up the garbage, wrap it in newspapers and come with him for a picnic. The kids loved the idea and singing and dancing, they turned up with Jockin at the local BMC office where they dumped their packets and came away, laughing and joking about the prank.
The next morning the cops came and picked up Jockin. Why did you do this? they asked him. What option did I have? he replied. No one was ready to listen to us or even acknowledge the fact that we existed. We are not asking the BMC to clean our slums. All we want them to do is pick up the garbage and take it away, as they are supposed to. There was a heated argument but eventually Jockin got his way. The slum dwellers won their first victory against the neglect and callousness of the local civic authorities.
One thing led to another and Jockin formed the first association of slum dwellers in the city. An association through which the slum dwellers could help themselves without looking to others for assistance. This later became a national federation with a women's wing that helped slum dwellers to save their hard earned money. From these savings, loans were given out to others who had no collaterals to offer but desperately needed cash for food, medicines, education for their kids. The loans were disbursed in 15 minutes. Suddenly, the slum dwellers found that they had a banking system which trusted them and which they could trust in turn.
Over the years the federation has become an institution. So much so that countries like South Africa and Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam as well as the UN and the World Bank have sought out Jockin to help formulate their national housing and rehabilitation policy. Today, he and his friends from the slums of Mumbai travel all over the world to educate nations on how to treat their urban poor.
It took the Magsaysay Foundation six months to find Jockin at the Cheeta Camp, where he still lives among those who were uprooted from that Chembur slum and rehabilitated. The Indian media, of course, had never heard of him. Busy as they were making heroes out of the Khairnars and Jagmohans who have won fame and national acclaim for breaking down slums, often in the midst of blinding rain.
Jockin believes there are only 21,000 families who live on the streets of Greater Mumbai and they can be easily rehabilitated if the government gives them some land and allows them to build their own homes instead of relying on builders and contractors. His conviction is that all those who live in slums are desperate for a way out. They want to live with dignity. All they need is a helping hand. If the state gives them a tiny part of the salt pan land that is lying on the outer fringe of the city, all the slum and pavement dwellers of Mumbai can be easily rehabilitated in less than a year, leaving the city clean.
The slums have young and qualified doctors and engineers and architects ready to contribute their best to uplift the quality of their own lives and the lives of those around them. Dharavi alone has 16 MBBS doctors and 24 qualified engineers. They do not need charity or government money. All they need is a place where they can move. As an example, Jockin describes how 3,000 families who lived near the railway tracks have been rehabilitated in the past three months. We can do much more only if the system stops seeing us as pariahs and gives us the dignity that we deserve, he says.
The story of Jockin is a story of enormous courage and commitment. If we listen to people like him, we will not only clean out our slums but will also stop criminalising our poor and lend dignity to those among us who are not as privileged as you and me. It will show the world that India remains a humane and civilised society where the poor have a voice that is heard.
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