Akhtar Hameed Khan and the Orangi Pilot Project

In 1980, when Akhtar Hameed Khan began working in the Orangi katchi abadis, he clearly spelt out his objectives. He was the scientist and Orangi was his laboratory. Through action research he wished to develop models that would overcome the constraints that government agencies faced in providing physical and social sector amenities to low income settlements. An integral part of these projects was to empower these communities as well through the development process. He was very clear that the models should be such that they can become a part of government planning policies. However, this did not happen, except in the case of the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA) which has adopted Dr. Khans’ methodology and procedures and become self sufficient in the process and successful in meeting its objectives. Since there was a lack of response from government planners and politicians, the OPP opted, much against his wishes, to expand the programmes through NGOs and community organisations both in Karachi and in other urban settlements in Pakistan. It is a tribute to the faith that he had in his young staff and followers that he agreed to such a move and later on supported it. Much later he was to remark, “It was a good move, maybe I have become to old and cautious”. But he was neither old nor all that cautious for he constantly pursued his original goal of effecting government policies and challenged the position taken by deeply entrenched and powerful interests in the development business.

He never saw NGOs as replacing the functions of the state. He was clear that NGOs should develop models, organise communities, support them with technical and managerial advice, and in the process bring about changes in government institutions and policies. Therefore, he was extremely upset when in the late 80s it was being aggressively stated that major functions of the state could be taken over by NGOs supported by foreign money. “This is a recipe for disaster”, he said, “They are putting up the Diwani for sale” (this was a reference to the conditions of Bengal before the East India Company took over the establishment from the Nawabs). He predicted very clearly the problems that the donor supported Social Action Programme would face and refused to involve the OPP with it. He was also very critical of seminars, workshops and meetings arranged by donors for promoting this NGO take over concept and described them as “dating and dining get togethers”. He strongly felt that the Pakistan state would become self-supporting, viable and strong if appropriate models of development that were compatible with the changing socio-economic conditions of Pakistani society could be developed and implemented. For the development of these models it was necessary to go beyond conventional ways and through “a process of investigation, local consultation, experiment and evaluation”. In addition, he felt that “the observance of a populist point of view and the preference for the needs of the common man” were essential if the models were to work.

Akhtar Hameed Khan was very conscious of the fact that he would die one day. This consciousness led him to institutionalise his work and so in 1998 the OPP was upgraded into three institutions, OPP-RTI, KHASDA and the OCT. Slowly, he left the workings of the programmes and even decision making to the programme leaders and activists. “I have become a dadi-amma”, he would say, “I hold the family together and that is my major function. The family now knows what to do.” However, there was one thing that he never gave up and that was account keeping. He kept accounts meticulously and very proudly showed them to visitors. According to him, accounts describe a project or an organisation better than any other document. Whenever institutions wished to collaborate with the OPP, he would say, “Let us look at their accounts and we will know everything about them”.

All of Akhtar Hameed Khan’s models have positively influenced the lives of women. This was not an accident for this element was carefully built into the programmes although there was no gender slogan mongering involved. He was touched by the emergence of working women in Orangi and by the fact that better education, health and incomes were becoming possible because of them. He wrote “I consider these working women, these female teachers, these girl students, as the finest achievement of Orangi people; as a shining example of belonging both to past and present; as the best preparation for entering the 21st century”. In conversations with the author of this piece, he often said that the emergence of urban working women was the most important sociological change that was taking place in Pakistan and that a subtle promotion for change in the mind-set of society was required to accommodate this revolution.

Akhtar Hameed Khan is no more. Apart from the institutions he has left behind, his finest legacy are the teachers and professors, professionals, social organisers, community activists, concerned citizens and bureaucrats, and grass root communities, who are working all over urban and rural Pakistan and who share a common cause based on his vision of how to evolve towards becoming a more just, humane and rational society, free from fear and exploitation. It is hoped that his death will bring them all closer together so that they can promote his thought structure.

On 15 October he will be buried in the compound of the OPP-RTI building, at the base of the Orangi hills, where almost twenty years ago he began his search for affordable and doable solutions to the problems of the rapidly expanding low-income settlements of urban Pakistan.

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