From slum-dwelling carpenter to US$1.25 million prize winner

There's a surprising name on the list of winners of this year's US$1.25 million Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship. 

08 April 2014
Jockin Arputham, once an itinerant carpenter who slept outside, gives HRH Prince Charles an insight into urban development issues and a tour of Dharavi (Photo: SPARC)

Jockin Arputham, once an itinerant carpenter who slept outside, gives HRH Prince Charles an insight into urban development issues and a tour of Dharavi (Photo: SPARC)

It's Jockin Arputham, a grassroots leader from India who founded the first National Slum Dwellers Federation, who tirelessly encouraged similar federations in many other countries and who helped them form an international network.

So how does he get an award for social entrepreneurship? There are no other grassroots leaders among the awardees. Even if one in seven in the world's population lives in 'slums' it is very rare for anyone to view their leaders positively.

Jockin must also be the awardee who has been arrested most often. This happened more than 40 times as he struggled to stop the eviction of 70,000 people who lived in Janata colony in Mumbai during the 1970s.

At this time, the Indian government regarded him as one of the most dangerous agitators, but he had never planned to become a grassroots leader. He was an itinerant carpenter who slept outside, and Janata colony was his home. Only when Janata was threatened with eviction, even though its inhabitants had the right to live there, did he begin organising opposition.

In 1977, Jockin was forced to leave India to avoid imprisonment, when the government of Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and human rights were suspended. He travelled to various countries visiting slum dweller organisations including the Philippines and South Korea.

This time abroad provided him with time to rethink what was needed to stop the mass evictions. First he recognised that slum dwellers had to be organised – so when he returned to India, when Mrs. Gandhi's government had fallen and the state of emergency had been lifted, he founded the National Slum Dwellers Federation.

As noted by Sheela Patel, whose nongovernmental organisation SPARC has worked with Jockin for nearly three decades: "The most powerful resource of any poor community is being organised — bringing its own ideas, resources and strategies to the table."

But Jockin also recognised that slum dwellers and their organisations had to change their relationship with local governments. Instead of protesting and demanding (very often for things the local government could not provide), slum dwellers had to show local government their knowledge and capacity – and their value as partners in development.

He also saw the power of savings groups formed by slum dwelling or homeless women. These groups had developed their own federation, called Mahila Milan, and the National Slum Dwellers Federation became their allies and partners.

Before long it was time to go global. In 1996, networks of slum dwellers from six nations — South Africa, India, Namibia, Cambodia, Nepal and Thailand — formed an international organisation called Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI).

It now includes federations from Bolivia, Brazil, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Federation members visit each other and share lessons they have learnt.

All the federations are actively designing and implementing projects to show what they can do – building or upgrading houses and toilets, mapping and enumerating their settlements – and encouraging local governments to work with them. At the heart of these federations are more than 16,000 savings groups, whose members and managers are mostly women.

The federations now have around US$10 million in their bank accounts from daily savings collections. Much of this finance circulates locally within savings schemes as members take out loans. There is another US$2 million of community savings in national urban poor funds that support their initiatives. In over 100 urban centres, the federations have set up local funds that are supported by and jointly managed with local governments.

So actually, it is entirely appropriate for Jockin and SDI to get an award for social entrepreneurship.

Indeed, for those who visit the federations, the extent of social entrepreneurship in all the savings groups is astonishing. As is their capacity to develop initiatives, solve local problems and use their finance to raise new resources. Remarkably, they make funding go so much further than in professionally designed and managed initiatives.

So perhaps we need to appropriate the idea of disruptive technology and apply it to Jockin and SDI – their development model is displacing established models. It is demanding that 'slum'/shack dwellers have the right to determine how best to address their needs. And it is demonstrating how development improves dramatically when it draws on the knowledge and capacities of the urban poor.

For further information about SDI:

An account of how Jockin became a slum leader.

The 2014 Skoll Awardees will be honoured at the 11th Annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, 9-11 April. For more information and to watch the live webcast, visit: