Akhtar Hameed Khan (1914-1999)
The death of Akhtar Hameed Khan came as an ominous portent on the eve of Pakistan’s military takeover. While the rest of the country waited anxiously to see how Pakistan would deal with its latest democratic failure, the rural development guru was quietly laid to rest in the arid soil of Orangi, the periurban Karachi settlement where he had tirelessly worked for nearly two decades to instill the spirit of self-help.
Pakistan’s policy-makers may have ignored Khan’s calls for simplicity, renunciation and self-reliance, but his work has made a difference in the lives of the countless many in Bangladesh and Pakistan and inspired development scholars both in the Subcontinent and the West. (An interview with Akhtar Hameed Khan and a companion article by Tarik Ali Khan on him and his work in Orangi appeared in the August 1998 issue of Himal.)
“Khan Sahib”, as he was known, was born to a Pathan family from Agra in 1914. After receiving an MA from Agra University in 1934, he joined the Indian Civil Service and served as a probationer at Cambridge University. However he soon became disillusioned with life as a colonial civil servant. He had participated in the central planning that contributed to the 1943 Bengal famine and the decay of the British Empire was as apparent to him as the growing poverty of the Subcontinent. He chose to make a genuine renunciation and explore the life of the common man. He resigned from the ICS in 1945 and began to work as a locksmith.
Renunciation was an important theme in his life. Greatly influenced in his early life by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the 19th-century reformer who founded the Aligarh Muslim University and encouraged the Muslim shurfa (middle class) to synthesise Western knowledge and Islamic thought, Khan’s later influences included Tolstoy, the Sufi mystics and the Buddha. He liked to refer to himself as a “Muslim Buddhist”. “Why did Buddha give up his princehood to become a wandering mendicant?” he once mused. “Because the way to discover the meaning of life is through controlling your instincts, controlling greed, hatred and delusion.”
After two years of locksmithery, he taught at the Jamia Millia University in Delhi, before migrating to East Pakistan in 1950 where he was appointed principal of Comilla College. He later became the director of US-sponsored village agricultural and industrial development (V-AID) projects. He spent a year at Michigan state University and returned as the training diector of the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development in Comilla.
Working at the lowest level of government and with the backing of Prime Minister Ayub Khan and the Americans, Khan focussed on improving rural infrastructure: link ads and irrigation chans. Various development fads community development and V-AID came and went, and all the while Comilla blossomed. Its training centres, rural works projects, and peasants’ cooperatives soon became models of organised development. But despite, or because of, its success, Khan was branded a CIA agent by local enemies who were none too happy with his growing influence in the area.
In 1969, he left Comilla to teach at Michigan State University. He returned to Pakistan in the late 1970s and became adviser to Comilla-style pilot projects at Daudzai near Peshawar, and to the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in the Pakistan’s Northern Areas. Over the years he became a visiting professor at Princeton, Harvard and Oxford and was also awarded the Magsaysay Award in addition to Pakistan’s highest honours. It was Orangi, however, that was to be the culmination of Khan’s life’s work.
In 1980, when he began walking the 7000 acres of the barren Sindh landscape that has now become Karachi’s largest illegal settlement, he noted the absence of basic sanitation and other facilities. But, at the same time, he also noticed the industriousness of the migrant settlers — Pathans from the Northwest and Biharis and other ‘Muhajirs’ from India. He was convinced that change would come not through grants or subsidies, but by harnessing the migrants’ spirit of enterprise.
Today, the stench of human waste has disappeared from Orangi. Over 5000 sewerage lines and secondary drains have been laid down and 80,000 pour-flush toilets constructed to service the settlement’s 95,000 homes. With the sewage taken care of, 750 schools were set up (vastly outnumbering government schools in the area) and nearly 700 clinics established. All this done by Orangi residents with technical and organisational guidance from Khan’s brainchild, the Orangi Pilot Project (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). The OPP’s action research approach soon brought more initiatives: micro-credit, social forestry, low-cost housing construction, and health and family planning. These initiatives may not be new in the world of ‘development’. However, it was Khan Sahib’s insistence that the people themselves must see the value of each initiative (and be willing to pay for it) that ensured real sustainability.
Khan Sahib referred to the dependence on foreign aid as the langar khana (free kitchen) mentality. He once called local development consultants “cheats” and international development consultants “even bigger cheats”. He insisted that Pakistan needed a hard programme of development, one that demanded selfsufficiency without donor aid.
Towards the end of his life, Khan Sahib remained disillusioned with Pakistan’s leadership and the constraints he faced in pursuing the two things he loved most: scholarship and social work. “I have to avoid controversy at every turn,” he would explain. “But the advice of the Sufis is not to care for one’s surroundings. The world is within you.” Khan Sahib’s admirers and friends will long remember his large frame clothed in a simple khadi kurta. They will remember his booming voice quoting instructively from the Qur’an in Arabic, Sufi poetry in Persian and the Buddhist sutras in Pali. And they will perhaps reflect on the passing of Akhtar Hameed Khan as the passing of an era.
I believe that if you can accept the fact that you will be parted from your beloved ones and lose what you consider precious, then you have conquered the self. You can’t be touched by pain anymore. You can work without thinking of awards or rewards. The pain of living will be diminished and, accepting that reality, you can go ahead. You can live a truly free life.
– Akhtar Hameed Khan