Founded by Sheela Patel in 1984, The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) advocates for the legitimization of slum-dweller communities throughout India. SPARC began their work fighting against evictions, but now extensively lobbies for physical, social and legal improvements on behalf of India’s estimated 65 million slum dwellers. In their work, SPARC confronts the most urgent urban issues facing humanity: the rise of the informal city.
In 2006, the World Bank estimated that nearly 54 percent of Bombay’s inhabitants live in shanties, with another 25 to 30 percent living in chawls (densely populated residential buildings of 4 to 5 stories with about 10 to 20 tenements) and on sidewalks. Slum and pavement dwellers live in dire conditions with limited or no access to services and amenities: informal settlements have inadequate sanitation, daylighting, electricity, and water.
Slum and pavement dwellers often make convenient political targets, and can have their homes destroyed at a moment’s notice, when someone of more influence decides that the land could be put to better use. When not being demolished, slums are treated with indifference and neglect. In both cases, slum and pavement dwellers are rendered invisible – festering urban problems to be either swept away or ignored.
Enter SPARC. SPARC works on many levels, but all their activities are rooted in a mission to restore dignity to slum and pavement dwellers. SPARC and their partners, Mahila Milan (Women Together) and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), together form “The Indian Alliance” and work to defend slum communities against abuse, but simultaneously resist any narrative that turns slum dwellers into helpless victims. Instead, they provide resources and infrastructure so that slum dwellers can activate their own power and realize their own impact.
Area Resource Centers were the first program developed by SPARC and remain the tiniest and most localized nodes in the Alliance’s network. They are meeting places for women, and act as the physical site for SPARC’s programs in micro-credit and housing policy.
In order to legitimize the existence of slum dwellers within formal systems of civic power, SPARC has developed extensive programs whereby slum dwellers can self-census their own communities. These enumerations produce the data which enables slum dwellers to acquire identity cards, ration cards, the proof necessary to enroll children in school or receive medical care. Enumerations also ensure that slum dwellers do not lose their benefits and rights in the event of a relocation or eviction.
SPARC has also been instrumental in developing micro-credit institutions throughout Bombay’s slum dweller communities. A daily savings plan, coordinated by Mahila Milan, enables female heads of household to safely save money outside of the formal banking sector. The critical mass of savings in turn allows for micro-lending back to the same community. Financial empowerment lies at the core of identity, lifts participants out of a debt mentality and enables the possibility of asset building within slum households.
Against this wider backdrop of community-building, SPARC partners with local communities to translate policy into homes, and slums into neighborhoods. In 1998, SPARC established the nonprofit SPARC Samudaya Nirman Sahayak (SSNS) Construction Company which offers financial, technical and professional expertise for communities undertaking incremental infrastructure development. SSNS, in partnership with the communities they serve, has developed 3,879 in-situ houses, rehabbed 3,900 units, built 878 community toilets, and granted 1,324 loans to homeowners to make incremental upgrades.
The development can come from the bottom up. Not top down. If you do anything top down, it is not tangible, it is not workable, it cannot sustain. – Jockin Arputham