Akhtar Hameed Khan and the Orangi Pilot Project

Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, father of the Comilla Cooperatives and the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), both internationally renowned development models, died in the United States on October 08, 1999.

To carry on his life’s work and to further develop it, he has left behind three remarkable institutions in Orangi. These are the OPP-Research and Training Institute (RTI), Karachi Health and Social Development Association (KHASDA) and the Orangi Charitable Trust (OCT). These institutions have, under his guidance, developed sanitation, health, education and income generating models for low income settlements. These models support local initiatives, use local resources and build on the capacity and capability of poor communities to look after themselves and to strike a more equitable relationship with government development agencies and with society as a whole. And development after all, is all about striking equitable relationships. These models do not require large funds, foreign or local, or expensive imported expertise and are totally indigenous. They are being replicated in numerous settlements in Pakistan, both in Karachi and other urban centres, and their principles are being applied to development programmes in South Africa, Central Asia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India. The OPP-RTI receives training groups not only from these countries, but also from the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan and the First World. Academic institutions dealing in development, planning and economics, the world over, study these models and international agencies and NGOs try to adapt them to their needs. More recently there is considerable pressure from communities and professionals, supported by concerned bureaucrats, to bring about policy changes that would adopt the principles and models of the OPP.

A lot has been written on Akhtar Hameed Khan’s work and the “research and extension” method that he followed. This method, along with the principle of bringing professionals, community activists and government officials to a common level of understanding, is followed today by numerous development agencies and NGOs. Yet, in terms of scale and impact there is something special about Dr. Khan’s work and one is forced to ask what that is. The answer to this question lies to a great extent in his personality, upbringing and his life long search for truth.

Akhtar Hameed Khan’s reputation as a community development expert has completely overshadowed the fact that he was an ardent student of history and a keen observer and commentator on current social, economic and political affairs. In his analysis and observations he was aided by the fact that he was a scholar of Persian, Arabic, and Pali, who had studied Islamic and Bhuddist classics in their original languages and in great depth. Thus, he had direct access to the sources of Indo-Muslim culture and history, without intermediaries. This was reflected in the way he wrote, even in English, and in his sense of humour. Given this background, it is not surprising that Akhtar Hameed Khan was an Urdu poet of considerable standing in the post 1857 tradition of Hali and Azad. In addition, he had a fine understanding of the contemporary world, an understanding which was heightened by his knowledge of European history, literature and philosophy and by his passion for the national and international print media. “I am a news junkie – I get withdrawal symptoms when there is a newspaper holiday”, he would say. He had also been able to observe the West at close quarters, first as a student at Cambridge in the mid-30s and then as a student (1958-59) and a professor (1973-79) at Michigan State University; and as a teacher at various universities in Europe and the USA. This immense knowledge of history and current affairs fed into Akhtar Hameed Khan’s development work, which was seen by him as an integral part of a larger process of change and evolution, at both the national and global level. This is one of the major reasons why Ahktar Hameed Khan’s projects differ from other projects that have similar aims and objectives. It is also one of the major reasons why he resigned from the ICS in 1945. In conversations with the author of this piece, he said many times that he resigned from the ICS because after the First World War British rule in India and its institutions had started to decline. He did not wish to belong to a dying system that had lost its vitality and viability. Another factor that occupied his mind was that as an ICS officer he could not solve the problems of the people at large, as those problems were of a social and economic nature and could not be solved through administrative measures. He increasingly wanted to know the causes of the problems and to understand the lives of the people who constantly petitioned him as an ICS officer regarding various issues. After his resignation he worked as a labourer and locksmith in Aligarh so as to know first hand the problems and the way of life of the working classes.

What also gets overshadowed by Akhtar Hameed Khan’s reputation is the close link between his background and upbringing and the values that his development work promotes and supports. Akhtar Hameed Khan belonged to a class and a culture of which austerity, frugality and diligence were an integral part. These virtues he never abandoned unlike many of his contemporaries. This austerity and frugality was reflected in the manner in which his project offices and programmes were run. It was also reflected in the lifestyle of Akhtar Hameed Khan himself, and thus no one could accuse him of hypocrisy, as so often happens in projects that try to be austere and frugal. In addition, Akhtar Hameed Khan had not moved away from the fundamental religious, ethical and social traditions of Indo-Muslim culture, and these traditions are very much a part of the cultural and mental makeup of the poor communities that his development projects work with. He and they related to the same concepts, used the same vocabulary, and had the same values (or at least respect for the same values). He understood their minds, their relationship with each other, and the historic process that determine them. In addition, he understood their relationships with the contemporary world, for he understood not only them, but the contemporary world as well.

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