SPARC’s activities are based on the principle that the urban poor can and must become the makers of their own destiny and can play this role if given appropriate structural support. The strength of this organization comes through their alliance with the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and Mahila Milan (Women Together), a collective of women living in slums. The alliance works within provisional communities to address housing and sanitation challenges, move individuals towards financial independence, and help them gain visibility and access to public services.
Insecure land tenure, inadequate housing and a lack of access to basic amenities for the urban poor are some of the core issues facing today’s rapidly urbanizing world. According to UN-Habitat, approximately 25 percent of the world’s urban population lives in slums. In parts of India, the situation is much more dire. The World Bank estimates that more than half of Mumbai’s inhabitants are pavement dwellers or live in provisional housing with inadequate sanitation, light, or water.
“Governments have allowed the proliferation of informal settlements by simply not caring for them,” says SPARC founding director Sheela Patel. “This is not going to change unless people who are from those groups start making demands and changing their relationship to the city.”
SPARC was founded in 1984 by a group of social activists fighting against the indiscriminate evictions of slum and pavement dwellers from their communities. The group expanded rapidly using their emerging relationship with NSDF and Mahila Milan to create an innovative federation model, named the Indian Alliance. Together, the Alliance organized the first comprehensive census of pavement dwellers, developed a credit system for their use while fighting for a more dignified habitat.
Today, through its alliance with NSDF and Mahila Milan, SPARC is active in more than 70 cities across India as a change agent with solutions that can be scaled for other groups domestically and internationally. In addition to policy advocacy, SPARC has facilitated the construction of housing for more than 8,500 families and built community toilets for more than 500,000 toilet seats in slums that have no facilities. Their nonprofit construction company—SPARC Samudaya Nirman Sahayak (SSNS) now jointly owned by the partners of the Alliance—has built 3,879 in-situ houses, rehabbed 3,900 units, built 878 community toilets, granted 1,324 loans to homeowners.