'Orangi is not unique, I am'

Akhtar Hameed Khan is one of Asia's foremost social organisers. The Orangi Pilot Proiect, Karachi's outstanding slum development programme, testifies to his innovative approach in empowering ordinary people to transform their environment

 
By Robert Wilkinson
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

AKHTAR Hameed Khan, 78, started his career in 1936 with the Indian Civil Service in erstwhile Bengal where he rose to become director of the Academy for Rural Development in Comilla. Returning to Pakistan after the creation of Bangladesh, he took up a research fellowship in Faislabad and then joined the Rural Development Academy in Peshawar. In 1980, he returned from a teaching break in Michigan State University to take up the biggest challenge of his career: developing the township of Orangi, Karachi's biggest slum.

He first came to Orangi "like a blind man, groping with a stick", as he puts it. Khan soon learnt that lack ofproper sanitation was the biggest problem here. The facilities offered by the local administration were too expensive for the people. As a result, the streets were a major health hazard.

By developing low-cost techniques and bypassing the profiteering and corruption endemic in the official sector, Khan's Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) helped the people of the settlement transform their environment.

Today, Khan is defending himself in the courts of Lahore and Karachi over a children's book he had authored, which was found to be "blasphemous". Khan's supporters believe that the charges are motiuated and brought on by vested interests who have traditionally profited from the plight of the poor. As he put it, "I am safe in Orangi. I have a million friends. But I am not safe in Pakistan."

How would you assess the importance of the OPP today, 12 years after it was set up?
I would say that Orangi is where Hong Kong was 40 or 50 years ago. Since every member of a family is working, the home is not only a living unit but also a working unit. We have adopted a three-pronged 18 approach to help them. First, we strengthen their own efforts through organisation - making their lanes and mohallas (colonies) even better organised than they 4re. Secondly, we teach them how to improve their housing and their sanitation by upgrading their skills. Thirdly, we teach them modern principles of hygiene and family planning. And we help them in their family enterprises by providing credit and so on.

Did you have these specific aims in mind when you started?
I would say that Orangi is where Hong Kong was No, not at all! I was a teacher of rural development for five or six years. I knew what had been done in China, in Taiwan and India, but I often say that in Orangi, I have been like a blind man, groping my way through with a stick. All that I have done, I have learnt by working with the people.

Since you have worked on rural development issues also, can you tell us how urban problems differ from rural ones?
There is a basic similarity in the conditions. Rural people have also survived. They have survived like the katchi abadis, without any government support.

If you look at Indian or Chinese history, you find that villages formed the imperial base. They provided all the money and humanpower. But it was only during a few fortunate periods in history that the government in power really served the villages, and that only marginally.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when you were working for the government, what were the guiding principles of state policy?
Well, I started my career even before Pakistan (was born)! I was a member of the ICS in 1936. Then came the creation of Pakistan, when rural development was provided by the Americans. Their "community development" approach combined Gandhian principles with American rural sociology. The basic idea was that the villagers should be organised and given some help, but they should also do a lot of the work themselves.

In Comilla I experimented with a model that would take us beyond this. For instance, the Chinese put emphasis on building up rural infrastructure by organising the people, not centrally, but through local councils and communes. I incorporated this aspect into my rural programmes.

As a government officer, you had to deal with the politicians and the bureaucrats. Were there any conflicts?
No, there was no conflict. It was not that they didn't want anything to be done - it was carelessness, indifference, non-comprehension. The crisis in Pakistan is that the rural economy has broken down. It cannot sustain the people. And this is why the katchi abadis are growing. In Karachi alone, 40 per cent of the people are living in katchi abadis.

Before going to Orangi, you spent some years at Michigan State University. Why did you go there?
You see, there was no escape. This, again, was most unfortunate. When I was organising the small farmers' cooperatives, the main problem was that the small farmer was being crushed by the moneylender, the trader and the contractor. And the ruling party was the party of the moneylender, the trader and the con- tractor.

This was in 1975?
No, this was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We had plenty of money - we got loans from the cooperative bank. The Ford Foundation gave us $800,000. The central cooperative was in a position to compete with the local moneylender. When the farmers' cooperative became very strong, moneylenders and traders took deputations to Ayub Khan against me, saying that I was a communist and was working against him. I escaped by the skin of my teeth. Ayub Khan had taken a liking to me and he told me that he had informed the governor and these people to get off my back.

Now, in Peshawar in the 1970s, there was no Ayub Khan and I was thrown out. Today, I'm facing the same problem! These people are getting organised and are out to destroy me on the theory that I am working against Islam and Pakistan.

I have heard that you have been in court all week?
All week? I have been running to court for more than three months! First I had to go to Lahore to fight a case that had been filed against me in Multan. It took about six weeks to look after that. And as soon as I came back here, I had to run to the high court.

You are being accused of blasphemy on account of a children's storybook you have written. Is there more to it than a purely religious objection by the fundamentalist?
They see it as a chance for them to become champions, to join the witch hunt. But I think there are more fundamental conflicts coming.

The vested interests don't like:power going to the people?
They don't like that, and they don't like being deprived. The most dangerous thing that has happened to OPP and to me is that the donor agencies, like the World Bank, UNICEF and others, have become our supporters. And they are asking why, if the people of Orangi can work like this and build lanes, it cannot be done elsewhere?

In 1960 you had Ayub Khan to support you. In 1975 you had no one. Now in 1992, you have one million people behind you in Orangi. So is this challenge to your credibility going to backfire on them?
Well, if I was hanged, I would get a wonderful funeral'with one million people attending it! But the people cannot fight this kind of thing. I am safe in Orangi, but not safe in Pakistan.

Is there anything particularly unique about the OPP?
No, Orangi is not unique, I am unique! The hopeless feature is that no one is coming to learn from me. I don't mean in Orangi itself - my co-workers are wonderful. But maybe it requires more time.

Are you saying that Orangi's evolution has been too dependent on your personality, your energy? Is that a mistake?
That's true of all innovations. Yes, it has depended very much on me. It is becoming autonomous in the sense that I only coordinate now. But if this kind of work is to be done elsewhere, it will require somebody with the same kind of dedication as I had. Unfortunately, our NGOs are in a terrible condition in Pakistan.

If you were to start again, would you do anything different?
You know, when. Michelangelo was asked how he made such beautiful statues, he remarked: "The statue is right there in the stone - it is my job to remove the extra stone."

This is true in the case of Orangi as well. The solution is there, I have to remove the obstacles to it.

Has the Orangi model been replicated?
No, our model is not for other countries. It would have to be adapted to local conditions. For instance, in India I understand that the government is much stronger than here - they can easily bulldoze katchi abadis! But the approach of sitting down in a katchi abadi, studying its specific problems, and then chipping away at the obstacles, this is a universal model. In other places, like the inner cities of USA, there is a total breakdown of the family structure. But in Orangi, the family is very strong.

What about Islamic influences?
As far as Islam is concerned, rituals play a very important role. The problem with Islam is that there are two levels. At the level of the ordinary people, it is still a living faith. At the upper level, things get a bit confused, because people here want to reject the 20th century. The top echelons say that women should be confined to their homes. But go to Orangi. There the people have established 509 schools and every one of them is co-educational. And the women are working. No, it is a good start; I have no complaints.

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