Ghulam Kibria: TechnoIogy for the Awam

I will not discuss Ghulam Kibria’s book. People more competent than me are going to do it. What I would like to talk about is Ghulam Kibria himself and the background to his single-minded dedication to using his engineering skills for the benefit of the common man. Unfortunately, the book does not contain a biographical note on him and as such it is all the more important that I speak about him.

Ghulam Kibria was born in 1926 in Seheswan Badioon. He went to school at Balund Sher and later studied at Aligarh from where he qualified as an engineer. He often says that his greatest misfortunate was that his father was a neighbour and close friend of Akhtar Hameed Khan’s father. At an early age he came under the influence of Akhtar Hameed Khan who was 14 years older to him and this association according to Ghulam Kibria “ruined his life”. If this had not happened he may have become a big industrialist, a hi-flying consultant or a very rich man divorced from the people. And I can assure you that he has the skills to become all this and more!

But there were other misfortunates awaiting him. In Aligarh he came under the influence of Prof. Karrar Hussain. He flirted with the Khaksar Movement and participated in the publication of Radiance and Al-Amin journals while a student at Aligarh. The journals were critical of the Muslim elite and tried to understand the causes for the “real” backwardness of the Muslim community.

After qualifying Ghulam Kibria taught at Aligarh from 1945 to 1948 when he migrated to Lahore. He found a job with Volkart. He has often said that the major turning point in his life was the work that he did in trying to resettle Mohajirs in Lahore after partition. In this he was supported by advice from his mentors, Prof. Karrar Hussain and Akhtar Hameed Khan, who were both teaching at Islamia College Karachi at that time. Instead of doling out charity and free services to the Mohajirs, Ghulam Kibria helped them in setting up small businesses and workshops so as to overcome their destitution. The critical element in this attempt was the provision of technical and managerial support to the new businesses. This was 1948. It was a new idea then and was done simply and without fanfare. Today, NGOs and international agencies do the same thing using complex terms and even more complex rhetorics.

But Ghulam Kibria was dissatisfied with his work with Volkart. He wanted to know the reason why Europe had progressed and we had remained backward. This was to become a passion with him and even today it is the subject of much of his writings.

He came to know that in the UK there were openings for “educated workers”. So in 1991 he went to the UK and became a shop-floor engineer in a factory. To get the job he had to hide effect that he held a degree in engineering. He also participated in trade union activity and was able to study British industry and entrepreneurship at close quarters. When the factory discovered that he was a qualified engineer they shifted him from the floor to the design and drafting section. Ghulam Kibria was not happy with this change.

From the later half of 1952 till 1953 he worked in a factory at Kolon in Germany and from there a British firm made him an offer to work in Lahore for them. He worked with the firm till they decided to transfer him to Karachi in 1960. Since he did not want to come to Karachi, he resigned.
In 1954 he and a small group of like-minded persons set up the Mili-Techniqi Idara. The purpose of the Idara was to provide education and technical training to those working in the engineering profession and industry but did not have the means to get formal education. The ldara was set up on a self-financing basis and was manned by volunteers. It closed down in 1993 since there were no volunteers left to work for it.

Ghulam Kibria was involved in business, mostly related to engineering and technology when he was asked by the People’s Party government in 1973 to become the founder chairman of the Appropriate Technology Development Organization (ATDO). His name was suggested for this post to the People’s Party by none other than the great guru of appropriate technology himself, Dr. Shumacher who had been reading Ghulam Kibria’s articles on the close relationship between politics, sociology and technology.

At the ATDO Ghulam Kibria was able to apply the immense knowledge and insights that he had gained by teaching, working as a factory hand, an engineer, a business executive, a researcher into social and economic issues of poor people, and a trade unionist. During his period as chairman of the ATDO, he was able to introduce a number of technologies that have now taken root throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan. These include batten and slab roofing, soil compaction blocks for wall construction, vegetable and fruit dehydration, home desalinization and small hydels. Many of these technologies are now being used commercially. The ATDO was action oriented and all research was action research and closely related to the problems that people faced in earning their livelihoods, building their homes and/or acquiring and building infrastructure.

I would like to give one example of how Kibria Sahib worked. The small hydels that were put up in the north of Pakistan were built by village community themselves including the infrastructure to channelize water to fire them. Village mistries not only made them but also operated and maintained them subsequently. As a matter of fact, people were so proud of them that they guarded them with guns. Other government departments also put up factory produced hydels through contractors. Most of these contractor installed hydels no longer function but Kibria Sahib’s hydels are still in operation.

At the ATDO experimentation of every kind was promoted provided it was for the benefit to society and especially low and lower middle income communities and small entrepreneurs. Failures and mistakes were not criticized but turned into a learning experience through scientific evaluation.

Kibria Sahib resigned from the ATDO in 1978. The real reason for his resignation was that Ziaul Haq postponed the elections that he was supposed to hold after 90 days of capturing power. Since then Kibria Sahib has worked as a consultant for a number of international and national organizations but only on issues and projects that he considers are of benefit to the people of this country. He was also responsible for setting up the Orangi Pilot Project with Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan and has remained its adviser and trainer since its inception.

Because of his scientific process of reasoning and his rich experience, Kibria Sahib is a very special engineer and social scientist. He has none of the conventional prejudices that distort reality or falsely history and is not afraid to state the truth. His greatest gift is that he breaks down complex concepts into their different components and simplifies them. In his recent writings this is exactly what he has done. The French would say that he vulgarizes profound things. From me this is a compliment!

I have worked with Ghulam Kibria at the ATDO, later as his partner in business and still later at the Orangi Pilot Project. The most important thing I have learnt from him is that once technology has been demystified it brings progress and development to even marginalized groups in society. It becomes accessible. Its densification however, requires that its theory and application is made compatible with the larger political, sociological and economic conditions in society. But to do that one has to have the varied experience that Ghulam Kibria has had and an ambition of which the search for wealth and position is not the main driving force.

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