Shanti Shinde stands at the edge of the pit and points to the foul black water at its bottom. “We’ve first got to pump that out,” she tells me. “Then, line the ground with large paving stones.”
Shinde and I are in the middle of a Mumbai slum. A 20-seat community toilet block is being built here by a slum dweller’s organisation to replace a filthy, unusable municipal toilet. The new toilets and another similar block, also being built nearby, will be a boon for the slum’s 2500 residents, most of who currently have to defecate in the open.
It’s hot and sticky under the noon sun, but Shinde patiently describes how a two-storey community toilet is constructed. As the 39-year-old mother of two talks briskly, it’s hard to believe that she’s a poor, illiterate product of a Mumbai slum.
“How do you know all this?” I ask. Shinde smiles. “It’s all thanks to Sir.”
Jockin Arputham – Shinde’s “Sir” – sits cross-legged on the floor of his office in Dharavi, Mumbai’s largest and most notorious slum. The room is packed with slum dwellers. A small man wearing a light blue long-sleeved shirt and dark pants, Jockin is talking on two mobile phones at the same time, as well as to an anxious-looking woman before him.
One of the woman’s children has leukaemia, and Jockin has been trying to raise money for the treatment. He’s also been sounding Mumbai’s municipal hospitals for a nurse’s job for another of the woman’s daughters.
“Come on Monday,” he finally tells the mother in Hindi. As she touches his feet and leaves, one mobile phone rings.
“No,” Jockin tells the caller in Marathi, the local language. “I’m meeting the municipal commissioner on Friday morning.”
He’s barely disconnected the phone when there’s a call from Nairobi. “Hello Jane,” Jockin says, switching to English. “Yes, I am going to Zambia. The Minister from Zimbabwe was here and I took him to London for the affordable housing meeting.”
If Jockin seamlessly straddles many worlds, his mission in each is the same: to get decent housing, sanitation and livelihoods for slum dwellers – of whom he is one – by developing their strengths as individuals and as communities. And in the past 25 years, the organisations he has created and partnered have helped hundreds of thousands of people in India and more than 30 other countries, improve their lives.
Says former UN Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson: “The work of Jockin and his far flung network of associates is perhaps one of the most successful anti-poverty initiatives in urban Asia and Africa today.”