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THE announcement of awards is rarely greeted with approval, even if as prestigious as the Magasaysay. So widespread is the penchant of politicians to grab ‘honours’ and of selection committees to be afflicted by political considerations, that most of us have come to view these announcements with some measure of scepticism, if not derision.

In honouring Joachim Arputham of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Aruna Roy of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan, the Magasaysay Foundation has not only hit upon a set of winners, it has, inadvertently or otherwise, made a crucial intervention in our public affairs and political discourse. It has also helped restore much needed faith in the somewhat discredited vocation of public service.

Joachim, the organisation he represents, alongwith the cognate bodies – SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resources Centre) and Mahila Milan – showcase the creative energies of a strata that few pin any hope on: slum and pavement dwellers. Particularly for our urban middle classes and decision-makers, this strata is seen as a troubling pestilence with every problem afflicting our cities – unauthorised occupancy of public spaces, filth, crime, disease and an unwarranted drain on civic resources – traced to them. Little wonder, the proclivity to shove them around, bulldoze their shanties and deny them basic civic rights so often meets with approval.

Joachim and his compatriots have over the years managed to strike a different path and thus won grudging respect. More than successfully demand civic services, security of tenure and observance of due process and human rights, the NSDF-SPARC-Mahila Milan combine have used research based constructive oppositionism to work along with municipal authorities and other official bodies to locate land for housing, design shelter, and promote savings and enterprise among their constituents.

They have the largest data base on slum and pavement dwellers. Those wanting to introduce a measure of rationality in urban governance seek them out because they have both credibility and the trust of thousands to involve them in the planning process. If Mumbai today manages to ‘clear’ the land around the Central Railway track, so desperately needed for expansion, without resorting to coercive high-handedness, it will be because the NSDF et al. have shown them land for proper resettlement and worked hard at sensitizing policymakers to treat the urban poor with respect, as citizens. Urban affairs minister Jagmohan would do well to learn from this experience before embarking on his grandiose plans to beautify Delhi.

Aruna’s story, or rather the story of the MKSS, is equally full of worthwhile lessons. Not just for their ability to bring together an unusual constellation of citizens – from the rural poor to the urban middle classes – in successfully spearheading the struggle for the right to information as a basic right (the current session of Parliament will be discussing The Freedom of Information Bill) but equally in asserting that citizens have a right to be consulted and involved in decisions of expenditure that impinge on their everyday lives, incurred supposedly for their benefit.

Starting from the small village of Devdungri in Rajasthan, Aruna and her associates, in particular Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh, have helped spread the MKSS message and process to a wide range of groups across the country. The ire against corruption, more so in public bodies, is hardly new. And while there is talk about the anti-corruption bureau, the CVC, the CBI and the Ombudsman – these exercises are seen as at best affecting the upper strata. Never before had the struggle for transparency and accountability involved the common people. Even less had the poor any confidence that, once organised and armed with information, they could demand accountability from rulers, if not actively associate themselves in planing.

If in their tumultuous career, the NSDF and the MKSS have won over numerous individuals and organisations in their struggles, it is because more of us today realise that unless we shed our love for the sidelines and actively engage with the wider socio political processes, we will be fated to remain passive recipients of the activity of others. There is no shortage of self-proclaimed leaders with magic wands. What we lack is humility combined with enterprise, a desire to both learn and collaborate, to provide leadership without thrusting ourselves on others. Aruna (MKSS) and Joachim (NSDF) teach us that this is possible. And much as they might protest being mutated into icons, this ‘honour’ helps dispel widespread cynicism and defeatism, qualities that we could do without.

Harsh Sethi