Slum dwellers nominated for Nobel Peace Prize

Article, 13 February 2014

IIED is delighted to hear that our friends and partners — Jockin Arputham and Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), the largest urban slum dweller movement in the world — have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Jockin Arputham, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 2014, gives HRH Prince Charles an insight into urban development issues and a tour of Dharavi (Photo: SPARC)

The nomination of the network of pavement dwellers, landless and homeless, in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is an unprecedented step in the life of a man who has risen from the streets of Mumbai to global prominence as the beacon of people-led approaches to urban development.

The bid was put forth by Swedish Minister for Public Administration and Housing Stefan Attefall. The bid also has high level political support from Norway and South Africa, including Derek Hanekom, South African Minister of Science and Technology and former Minister of Land, who has also announced his support of this nomination.

In his nomination letter Minister Attefall chose the warning of the Greek philosopher Plato to the Athenians as the basis of supporting Arphutham's candidacy: "The income of the rich should not exceed the income of the poor by more than five times. Any more would create economic inefficiency and generate "the greatest social risk": civil war."

The struggle against urban inequality and associated civil strife has been waged by SDI for two decades through the organization of the poorest of the poor, primarily women, in cities. Arputham's career as an activist against inequality, displacement, and for more inclusive urban development spans half a century.

His contribution to avoid "the greatest social risk" in developing world cities is considerable. While trying to seek a solution for 70,000 inhabitants against eviction in the Janata colony in Mumbai, Arputham was arrested 64 times from 1964 to 1975 by the Indira Gandhi government. Riots and bloodshed were avoided and a peaceful solution found thanks to his interventions. His example has built SDI into global "champions of peace" in cities by building social capital and cohesion among the poorest of the poor. Arputham has been doing this through innovative civil, peaceful disobedience methods organizing and mobilizing women. Dialogue between oppressed and oppressor — not confrontation — has been SDI's unique hallmark. 

The present situation in the growing urban slums of the developing world is dramatic. Slum populations, according to the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN Habitat), are currently growing by a staggering 25 million per year. In 2050 more than 70 per cent of the global population will live in cities. In the developing world half the population will live in urban or peri-urban slums.

Urban poverty is thus the radical new face of inequality. Most of the mushrooming new slums in Asia and Africa are not even on any official map. During the coming decades population growth in the cities of the South will increasingly be self-generated and not caused by migration. This is, according to Mike Davis, author of the provocative book "Planet of Slums" (2010), guaranteed to shape a future of street wars.

The US based Journal of the Army War College in 1993, after the Mogadishu debacle the same year, when slum militias inflicted 60 per cent casualties on elite army Rangers, declared that the future of warfare lies in the streets, in the sewers, in high rise buildings and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of the world.

Against this background, international development agencies have to rethink their urban roles. But they are not. How can they contribute to preventing urban Armageddons – a low intensity urban world war, as predicted by both observers like Mike Davis and military agencies like the Pentagon? How can they add human development perspectives to a military analysis that seems weak on objective, social assessments? And that might be outright wrong with regard to the willingness of poor slum dwellers to revolt. This is where SDI makes the difference supported by Swedish International Development Agency, Ministry of Foreign Affairs — Norway, Gates, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. 

The historic experience with slum populations is that people are trying to stay safe and improve their lives, and that they have too much to lose. It is an experience that has led SDI, the leading international movement for slum inhabitants working in more than 33 countries, to advocate dialogue and partnership with local, national and international authorities instead of confrontation and revolt. They feel used and betrayed by middle class rights-based activists that "never give anything back".

SDI and its president have more than any other international player contributed towards improving the plight of the urban poor – in particular female household leaders. In a situation with increasing inequalities on city level, resulting in many conflicts and civil wars, Arputham and SDI have countered such trends by promoting the interests of poor women, building alliances between ethnic groups, advancing the situation of refugees, such as linking with Mother Theresa for Bangladeshi refugees in India in 1972.

SDI has been promoting an international alliance and partnership between slum dwellers organizations on three continents delivering housing, water and sanitation and other slum upgrading facilities relevant for millions of people. The results and impacts are well documented. Arputham realized that slum dwellers had to change their strategy from confrontation to cooperation. This approach has now reached millions of the poor whose fate will make or break the social fabric of our rapidly growing cities.

This press release first appeared on the Shack/Slum Dwellers International website on 13 February 2014.

More about Arputham's work can be found in this Environment & Urbanization paper. The paper describes his life and work plus the many different methods he has used to fight eviction and get government support for people-centred development over the past 40 years, including the long fight to protect Janata colony in Mumbai from eviction.

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