Akhtar Hameed Khan’s contribution to urban public projects highlighted

The Akhtar Hameed Khan Conference on Social Develop­ment organised by the NED University of Engineering and Technology, at their City Campus on Saturday didn’t just celebrate the life and times of the renowned social scientist and development practitioner but also looked at his kind of work and wisdom.

Speaking about his contribution in evolving urban public projects, architect and town planner Arif Hasan said that Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan’s thinking was based on making one self sufficient.

“He wanted communities to work at providing basic infrastructure for themselves developing an understanding of each other while working collectively together,” said Mr Hasan.

“He had good reason for this. He used to say that there has been too much physical and social dislocation due to which local governance systems are losing their roles as new communities with misplaced roots emerge. They need to get together again to work and bond,” he said.

The renowned social scientist’s motto was simple living

“Through his programmes for development, he wanted to spread awareness and teach the people some skill as well,” he added.

Orangi sanitation project

Talking about the sanitation project in Orangi Town, Mr Hasan said that Akhtar Hameed Khan’s sanitation project had several issues. He said that in 1981, when he appeared on the scene he found him looking for some solutions. “The UN adviser appointed by the BCCI wanted Doctor Sahib to move from Orangi to a nice spot with a nice office where international donors would feel comfortable. But he would not budge because he said that the people they wanted to help, the people of Orangi, felt at home at his Orangi office. He was also against air conditioning, which eventually had to be brought in for the computers.

“Then the UN advisers wanted students as social organisers while Doctor Sahib wanted community people appointed there. But the UN advisers saw them as just musclemen. The students, graduates actually, were seen more useful for documentation. Then when they needed a map of Orangi there wasn’t one. A survey company was called. They provided an estimate. Doctor Sahib had a problem with their cost. He then wondered if the students could do the survey instead. We brought in 40 students from Dawood College and NED for the survey. These students would be roaming around Orangi. They would spend time with the people of the community and that helped them learn about katchi abadis, which they took back to their universities,” he said.

“The social organisers were important, but they were not students or graduates. They were all from Orangi — a community activist, a plumber, a rickshaw driver, a land developer, which one would call an encroacher. But they were really our teachers. They taught us about the real issues of the area,” he said.

He also said that in 1981 when he began his involvement with the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), he was asked some key questions by Akhtar Hameed Khan.

“He asked me why a sanitation programme was so expensive. Why it required loans? Could it be made cheaper so that people could do it themselves? I explained that that government sanitation costs were six to seven times more due to various factors including old tendering ways and the way contractors were hired. Then our international loans doubled the government’s costs. We had taken many development loans and say one rupee labour material would cost Rs20 as a result. We took this to the governor of Sindh who realised that projects worth Rs100 million could be done in Rs20m. Then if we brought in our own engineering standards while relieving the contractors also, the construction cost of Rs 4,000 would drop to Rs 600. Doctor Sahib found that quite affordable and acceptable.

“We looked at sanitation in two parts — internal development and external development. For the internal part, the people of the community would make sewers and the government would make sewerage plants. But our standards and way of work brought on several arguments. We were informed that the system will collapse. I was seen as some kind of a quack and the system I had designed was said to be under-designed. I said that I have not studied sanitation so they were welcome to call in a proper engineer. But Doctor Sahib was afraid that the new fellow would demand too much. So he stuck with me and said that ‘we will sink or swim together’. Then the foreign experts who were sure that our system was a failure returned to find it holding up very well. They wanted our calculations, they wanted to team up for a joint patent of the design. We didn’t want a patent. We wanted it used by all,” he said.

‘Govt lost an opportunity of a century’

Earlier, in his keynote address, Rural Support Programmes Network chairman Shoaib Sultan Khan spoke about Akhtar Hameed Khan’s life, from Comilla (in Chittagong, Bangladesh) to Orangi.

He spoke about his innate qualities, his scholarship, his vision, his Buddhist way of life, his understanding of Quran and his passion for helping others.

“He had a versatile and complete personality. He was a complete human being whose motto was simple living. He carried praise for the British but he left civil service because he believed that they could not teach him anymore than he had learned from them. And then he became a labourer,” he said.

“When I had first heard of Akhtar Hameed Khan from the younger brother of a colleague in Comilla, he was all praise about his principal. I had dismissed it as the babbling of a teenager. But then three years later, I myself came face to face with the man himself,” he said before speaking at length about their lasting association.

“He wanted self-sustaining programmes and that is what he was doing with OPP. He said that the government was fickle and as it changed, it changed its mind. So he was not in favour of funding and grants. His greatest quality was flexibility and keeping an open mind. He had the vision and foresight to change circumstances and had faith in the self-reliance of people. The government didn’t use his expertise, and in that it lost an opportunity of a century,” he said.

In his welcome address, Prof Dr Noman Ahmed, head of the Department of Architecture and Planning at NED University, said that Akhtar Hameed Khan’s life and work reminds us to follow his kind of thinking. “His work and the organisations he set up ask to be revisited by our youth. And that’s the aim and focus of this conference,” he said.

The many others who spoke included researcher Mansoor Raza, Senator Taj Haider, rights activist Karamat Ali, Rabia Siddiqui of Dawood College and Tasneem Siddiqui of Khuda ki Basti were also among the many who spoke and shared their fond memories.

Meanwhile, Anwer Rashid, Dr Mansoor Ali, Hafiz Rashid and Sumera Gul, who were also close associates of Akhtar Hameed Khan and worked with OPP at different times in various capacities, sent in recorded messages.

Community development practitioner Fayyaz Baqir joined in live from Canada.

Published in Dawn, by Shazia Hasan November 21st, 2021

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