IN these times of despair, even the dead can give us hope and inspiration. That is the powerful message that emerged from the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute’s forum on Jan 22. It was organised to commemorate the birthday of Perween Rahman who was shot fatally in March 2013.
Why was Perween killed? It might sound bizarre but the fact is that there are vested interests in our society who feel threatened by people who work for the poor. That was confirmed by SP Akhtar Farooqi who said on the occasion that the murder was not motivated by personal enmity but by economic factors.
Advocate Faisal Siddiqi’s observation was profound. He has taken up the case pro bono and said that the killers sought to kill an ‘idea’ that was designed to empower the poor. Faisal has himself been taking up cases where the poor have been oppressed. Though Perween’s case still has a long way to go, his commitment has kept it alive.
Imposing external models on a community can be disastrous.
That is what OPP is all about — providing social justice to the poor. Titled the Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan and Perween Rahman Forum, the meeting was basically a celebration of the glorious work of OPP that was conceptualised by its iconic founder director, Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan. Perween had devotedly kept alive the memory of her mentor whom she acknowledged fulsomely without fail every December in a forum in his name. For the last three years, this forum had not been held. One hopes the tradition will now be revived.
The more I think of Perween, the more I marvel at her dedication to her work for the underprivileged of this country. She died in the same area where she had worked quietly for years in the modest office that made her so accessible to the people who needed her.
She imbibed deeply one of the basic tenets of the OPP philosophy and could take the task of bonding with the community much further by engaging with the people she worked for. Her warm and friendly disposition and her immense capacity to forge interpersonal relationships helped her.
Akhtar Hameed Khan provided the intellectual underpinning to the development work he strategised. The research and extension approach that he adopted is what all development workers and social activists would do well to emulate. His extensive education, knowledge and vast experience equipped him for this kind of work. That is why he could understand the psyche of the poor and was never alienated from them as he shared similar values of austerity and frugality with them.
According to him when the system collapses — as it has in this case — the community produces its own leadership, devises new structures and mobilises its manpower and financial resources on a self-help basis. All it needs from outside is some social support and more qualified technical guidance.
He also considered it important for this guide and philosopher to show understanding of the popular mindset and adopt a people-centric approach while looking for indigenous solutions. Seeking to impose external models on a community can be disastrous. The ‘I know best’ attitude adopted by social workers ostensibly trying to uplift communities only alienates people. Doctor Sahib, as he was respectfully called, identified himself with the people he worked with by always wearing his khaddar kurta-pajama attire and never adopted an ostentatious lifestyle.
The OPP has focused on the basic concerns of the people as was the observation of its founder’s research findings. These were housing, sanitation, healthcare, education and employment. Innovative ideas were introduced — many succeeded, some failed.
Failure did not deter Dr Akhtar Hameed as he considered it part of the research process. It was social engineering that he was attempting to do in his quest for a successful model of development.
A lot has been written about Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan’s philosophy, the most authentic coming from Arif Hasan who worked closely with him. Akhtar Hameed Khan was a prolific writer himself and believed in documenting all the work the OPP undertook. The guiding principles implicit in the OPP approach were that the project should be populist, it should have links with intellectuals, it should have a working relationship with policymakers and it should be connected with the international discourse on development.
The OPP was initially intended to provide a model for the government to adopt vis-à-vis impoverished communities. Hence the emphasis was on everything local so that poor communities could be self-sustaining and look after themselves. Thus they would be able “to strike a more equitable relationship with government development agencies and with society as a whole”. According to Arif Hasan, development is all about striking equitable relationships. Such models do not require “large funds or expensive, imported expertise and are totally indigenous”.