Icon Remembered

DR Akhtar Hameed Khan, the iconic South Asian social scientist, died in the US on Oct 8, 1999. His body was brought to Karachi and buried in the compound of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), one of the many institutions that he created in his long and tumultuous career. Akhtar Hameed Khan is also the author of the Comilla Cooperatives, set up in East Pakistan in the 1960s, whose rural development model has and is being replicated in both First and Third World countries.

Even today, it is taught at the best of universities in rural development and sociology related disciplines. Much of the academic material related to these subjects was either developed by Doctor Sahib himself or is based on his theoretical and practice related framework. The AKRSP and the RSPN models in Pakistan, developed and nurtured by his distinguished colleague and student Shoaib Sultan Khan, are also based on concepts developed by him.

His last project was the OPP in Karachi, a city that perplexed him in the beginning but which he subsequently learnt to understand better than anyone I know.

Through the OPP, which was established in 1980 and is his only urban undertaking, he tried to overcome fiscal, social and technical problems that the state faces in upgrading and regularising katchi abadis and, in the process, reducing poverty. When he asked me to join him in 1981, he said that his objective would only be achieved if the OPP became a research and extension organisation not only for local government in Karachi but also as a teacher to other local governments. Such a relationship was never formalised, but the OPP has acted and continues to act as a research and extension organisation for many urban sanitation, water supply and land related issues in Karachi and in other cities of Pakistan.

Akhtar Hameed Khan’s real legacy lies in a structure of thinking.

The OPP’s documentation of katchi abadis and the natural drainage system of the city which began in 1981 was developed to scientific perfection by its former director Parveen Rehman. This documentation is the basis on which the S-3 sanitation project for Karachi has been developed and on which a realistic understanding of the land issue and the relationships between its different actors can be established. This understanding and the OPP’s secure housing programme is responsible for providing affordable land to poor communities, which would otherwise have been grabbed by developers for middle and elite housing. It is believed, with considerable logic, that this programme was the reason for which Parveen was murdered.

Akhtar Hameed Khan’s real legacy does not lie in his projects, but in a structure of thinking which is often unknowingly followed by hundreds of his disciples who are replicating the OPP on their own. He believed that we live in times of major physical and social dislocation due to which old forms of collective action no longer exist and that community organisations are the only means to fill this gap. He worked all his life for the creation of such organisations with a single mindedness of purpose. He believed that if communities could organise around a single issue, raise or access money, decide on how to spend it, and are supported by technical and managerial skills, they become empowered and this changes their relationship with government agencies and subsequently leads them to do other things for the benefit of their community.

To urban development theory, he has gifted the component sharing model where communities finance and build their neighbourhood’s physical and social infrastructure while the state develops the off-site infrastructure. More than three million people in Pakistan have benefited from this model.

After Parveen Rehman’s death in 2013, the OPP passed through difficult times. The leadership of the project was continually rece¬ iving death threats, asking it to withdraw the cases it had filed seeking justice for Parveen, and visitors were afraid to visit the OPP offices.

However, the OPP has recovered from the difficult times that it passed through. This is thanks not only to the courage of its leadership but also that of its lawyer and the strong support it received from CSOs, media, judiciary, and from certain individuals in the establishment.

Today, its links with both government and NGO-promoted projects and with Pakistan’s academia are as strong as ever. The urban development model of Akhtar Hameed Khan has proved that it can deliver affordable and sustainable infrastructure which does not require large foreign loans, something he had become extremely critical of.

Apart from the model, without the intense interaction, and its documentation, that the OPP process has generated between government, development practitioners, professionals, academia and communities, the country (and especially its poor) would have been much poorer. And behind all this lies Akhtar Hameed Khan’s lifelong search for truth.

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