As sanctions start to bite, Pakistanis learn from Akhtar Hameed Khan’s calls for simplicity, renunciation and self-reliance.
Every morning Akhtar Hameed Khan makes the journey to Orangi, Pakistan’s largest unplanned urban settlement, or katchi abadi. Located 12 kilometres from Karachi’s centre, it is a microcosm of this city of migrants, a sprawling community of mohajirs (Indian Muslim refugees from 1947), Biharis (more recent refugees from Bangladesh), Pathans, Sindhis, Punjabis and Balochs. Orangi has swallowed up 7000 acres of the barren Sindh landscape on the edge of Karachi and is still growing. Orangi is as big as Colombo or Amsterdam, a city within a city.
More than three and a half million people live in the 400 katchi abadis that surround Karachi. Being outside the official city plan, the migrants have little access to government-funded resources. Officials have traditionally ignored their squalor. Orangi itself began to be occupied in 1965 and grew rapidly after 1972 with the influx of refugees from newly independent Bangladesh.
Orangi could have resembled the desolation of many other famous South Asian Slums. But Orangi today is a development miracle, a thriving community of middle and lower-income migrants. The difference from a ‘slum’ is immediately apparent: the stench of human waste has disappeared due to a network of sewerage lines, secondary drains and pour-flush toilets. Small locally-built schools vastly outnumber government schools – all built by Orangi residents with technical and organisational guidance from Khan’s brainchild, the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP).
After a stint at teaching at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Khan returned to Pakistan to serve as an adviser to a rural development project near Peshawar. The Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI) approached him in 1980 to start a project in Orangi. With no office, no staff, and no contacts in Orangi, Khan began by walking the lanes for months. He peered into the middle and lower income houses of its one million residents, people who came in search of the economic dream in Karachi. Khan spoke to local officials, councillors and lobbyists and discovered how little the katchi abadi residents had in the way of rights.
Realising that OPP would have little legitimacy and no authority within the traditional structures of city government, Khan decided that the solution lay in organising residents. He got to work with them, and the communities identified health and sanitation as the primary needs. In response, OPP began to develop low-cost sanitation technologies that people could craft themselves. An engineer offered technical help and OPP-trained social organisers provided the logistics.
Work soon picked up steam. Every mohalla (locality) elected a manager, someone who would oversee the work of installing sewerage lines, secondary drains and toilets. Khan recalls: “The designs made by foreign consultants were expensive and inappropriate, we found. The ones we developed were more culturally appropriate and made at one-tenth the cost.” By 1995, 76 percent of Orangi households had proper sanitation facilities. On average, only 24 percent of Pakistani households enjoy this kind of access.
But perhaps the biggest urban management lesson was that it could all be done without grants or subsidies. Khan has been able to harness and organise the migrant’s spirit of enterprise. With their own money, and supported by the OPP’s technical guidance, residents constructed over 5000 sewerage lines and 80,000 latrines. With the sewage taken care of, the communities went on to build 750 schools and 646 health clinics. Residents formed their own local organisations and took over the running of the facilities from OPP.
The results have been dramatic. Between 1982 and 1991, Orangi’s infant mortality rate dropped from 130 to 34 per 1000 (Pakistan’s average is 95 per 1000). Property prices rose in Orangi, and the residents benefitted. Through OPP’s Research and Training Institute, Khan’s action research approach has brought more initiatives after the initial focus on sanitation, health and education: social forestry, low-cost housing construction, and family planning.
From the Pathan children who collect plastic bags for recycling to the Banarasi silk weavers busy with their intricate work, every lane of Orangi bustles with enterprise. Khan felt the average working family’s productive capacity could be improved through access to credit. In 1987, OPP established a trust which borrowed from Pakistani banks and began lending. The first two years saw high default and blackmailing, but today a tight lending policy ensures that there is a 95 percent return rate on OPP loans. New clients must be referred by a trustworthy former loan recipient, and each recipient finds himself listed in one of four categories: competent/honest, incompetent/honest, competent/dishonest, incompetent/dishonest.
Over the years, Akhtar Hameed Khan has become convinced that true development must make the poor self sufficient. Subsidies or handouts have contributed to dependence on foreign aid, which he calls the “langar khana (free food) mentality”. Beginning a project like OPP was no easy task because, as Karachi mushroomed in the 1980s, politicians like the late Gen Zia-ul Haq were making wild promises to the shanty-town residents. “Whereas we were telling them not to wait for handouts and do it for themselves,” recalls Khan. “It was hard to convince them.”
Believing that women are generally more honest, Khan has employed an all-female staff to handle credit disbursement and repayment. The credit office at OPP has a deliberately spacious and open design to encourage transparency and prevent under-the-table deals. Khan’s own daily vigilance routine also has an effect on the staff; he is still as watchful as a hawk. “All Pakistani organisations which dole out money are corrupt. Initially out of the 10 staff I hired, I had to fire five,” he says.
Khan is convinced that Pakistan’s problems are largely moral. Given the country’s current state of corruption and debt, Khan says what it needs is a hard programme of development, one that demands self-sufficiency without donor aid. At Orangi, OPP has broken the vicious circle of waiting for a free lunch: residents and staff both accept the new ethos of a hard programme, even if leaders do not.
In a country where feudal politicians, bureaucrats and the military elite call the shots, Akhtar Hameed Khan draws his inspiration from the Sufi and Buddhist principles of simplicity and renunciation. Born to a Uttar Pradesh Pathan family from Agra in 1914, Khan was bred for success. He recalls life as part of the shurfa, or Muslim middle class, that continued to survive in North India after the Mughal decline. The UP Pathans had been transformed from belligerent tribes who challenged the Marathas in the 18th century into jagirdars (landowners), policemen, soldiers and civil servants.
He was raised in the tradition of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the 19th-century reformer who founded the Aligarh Muslim University and encouraged Muslims to synthesise Western knowledge and Islamic thought. Sir Syed offered Muslims reformation through his humanist alternative to the religious madrassah schooling and post-Mughal decadence. His promotion of English education brought opposition from the ulema. He discouraged practices such as having multiple wives and dancing girls in the shurfa household and encouraged Victorian self-discipline, modesty and frugality.
Akhtar Hameed Khan says that in his college days in Meerut, he was influenced by Nietzsche and the writings of Allama Mashriqui, the latter a strong proponent of ghalba-i-Islam, or Islamic domination. In the 1930s, Mashriqui had founded the All-India Khaksar Movement. Dressed in khaki, Khaksar’s largely lower-class members were organised for social service, but its militant fascist undertones were obvious. Khan eventually married Mashriqui’s daughter and joined the prestigious Indian Civil Service (ICS).
But after nine years as a colonial civil servant, and having participated in the poor central planning that led to the 1943 famine in Bengal, Khan was disillusioned. The decay of the British Empire was as apparent to him as was the growing poverty of the Subcontinent. Long influenced by Islam’s Sufi mystics and the writings of Tolstoy, he decided to renounce the world. He resigned from the ICS in 1945 and spent the next two years as a reclusive locksmith.
“Why did Buddha give up his princehood to become a wandering mendicant?” Khan muses. “Because the way to discover the meaning of life is through controlling your instincts. This is the message of Sufi poets like Jalaluddin Rumi as well. What are the three things we must control? Greed, hatred and delusion.”
Khan confesses that his love of scholarship brought him back to the world. His Khaksar fantasy dissolved and he soon discovered his next teacher, Zakir Hussain, the head of Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamic University, and, later, president of India. In Zakir Hussain, he found Sir Syed’s rationalism coupled with strong Indian nationalism. Khan taught English to primary and secondary schoolchildren and history to college classes at the Jamia Milia until 1949. Its extensive library allowed him to continue studying the writings of Islam’s mystics and philosophers, while Partition took place outside.
But East Pakistan soon beckoned. “Zakir Hussain told me not to leave for Pakistan. He said that people like me were leaving because we were frustrated. He felt that we could better serve the Muslims of India. But I was full of Islamic ideology and thought Pakistan would be a utopia. There is no mistake in my life except this migration.”
Khan’s love of scholarship and free speech is often exploited by his enemies, those whose very power is threatened when the poor become mobilised. “My social work in Pakistan is like walking a tightrope. I have to avoid controversy at every turn. But the advice of the Sufis is not to care for one’s surroundings. The world is within you.”
In teaching, he had found his calling. He migrated to East Pakistan in 1950 where he was appointed principal of Comilla College. In addition to the writings of the sages, he began to devour books on economics and the theories of Marxism and capitalism. With his ICS experience as an administrator in Bengal, he was soon appointed director of the US-sponsored village agricultural and industrial development (“V-AID”) projects. He was sent for a year to Michigan State University for training and the Americans became his new teachers. He returned to an appointment as director of the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development in Comilla (today the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development).
The task before Khan now was to figure out where to begin the development process. The colonial legacy of the British was an administration based on law and order and revenue collection. The foundation stone for maintaining the Pax Britannica in the Subcontinent had been – and continued to be – the thana, the police station. The few facilities which existed in the rural areas (schools, health dispensaries, veterinary dispensaries, and even roads) were often at the thana. For Khan, the jurisdiction of the police station was small enough, and developed enough, to serve as the centre of his activities. The Comilla experiment was underway.
Khan focussed on improving rural infrastructure: link roads and irrigation channels. While development fads like community development and V-AID came and went, Comilla blossomed. It had American financial backing and the support of Pakistan’s prime minister, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Its thana training centres, rural works projects, and peasants’ cooperatives soon became models of organised development. Khan says Comilla was the American answer to the socialist ;model of development but makes it clear he was not driven by any ideology, either communism or capitalism (see following interview).
Khan left in 1969 and ended up teaching at his alma mater, Michigan State University. By the time he returned to Pakistan in the late 1970s, the east had become independent Bangladesh. Officially retired, he was soon busy giving advice on Comilla-style pilot projects at Daudzai near Peshawar, and in the Northern Areas with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. But it is at Orangi, where he has patiently brought development according to his Sufi-Buddhist principles of right livelihood, that his efforts sank deep and paid off.
Khan’s towering six-foot body is now slightly stooped, the gait is slow as he arrives every morning at OPP’s office to meet guests and receive reports from the staff. His associates listen intently to his booming voice as he responds to each new situation, quoting instructively from the Qur’an in Arabic, Sufi poetry in Persian and the Buddhist sutras in Pali.
Says Khan, “Although there is no concept of an ashram in our society, I feel OPP is an ashram. And here I am not a bull baboon who demands obedience. I am more like a daadi ma (grandmother) who guides out of love.”
Asked whether OPP will survive without him, Khan sounds confident, and it is clear he is proud of his associates and the people of Orangi. “The work will go on. We have Arif Hassan at OPP and Tasneem Siddiqui of the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority. These people understand the self-help philosophy. We have the support of the people. And even though we criticise them, we now have the support of the government as well. We have proven here that the ‘hard programme’ lives. It is sustainable.”