SlumGod: Akhtar Hameed Khan

Born in 1914 in Agra, India, Khan began as a bureaucrat in Indian Civil Service in 1936. Not literally, but bored of it and aspiring to achieve something greater, he left his job in 1945. For two years, he worked as a locksmith in a village. This experience gave him firm wings to soar high in coming years. Later, he migrated to Pakistan in 1950 to teach at Islamia College, Karachi. In the same year, he became Principal of Comilla Victoria College on request by Pakistan Government. He remained there till 1958.

In 1959, he launched The Comilla Cooperative Pilot Project in Comilla Town, Bangladesh. This project failed in the course of time to achieve its desired objectives, although it encouraged other projects like Grameen Banks. The model fell prey to ineffective internal and external controls, stagnation, and diversion of funds. Only 61 of initial 400 cooperatives were functioning by 1979.

A common man, after such a life, would love to relax in his home after such a failure following years of work. However, Khan was not a guy of that kind.

In 1980, he launched another project. This one as an NGO, named Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). The Orangi Town, Karachi, Pakistan, is the largest slum of South Asia with its limbs spreading in an area of around 60 sq. km. 99% of its population is Muslim, totaling up to 700,000 Inhabitants as per government claims, although experts estimate it to be around 2.5 million.

Prior to 1980s, the slum was just like another one of its kind. Sanitation and sewage problems at their maximum possible heights, and local residents faced sever problems. It was a fool’s business even to think of improving the conditions. However, Khan, at the age of 66, thought of doing the impossible.

Orangi was a squatter locality, and did not enjoy any governmental helps due to its ‘illegal’ tag. The conditions had worsened furthur after creation of Bangladesh. Khan started working with the locals, to improve the conditions under OPP. With the experience of Comilla Project, he managed to conduct this job much more effectively with his hardwork. Ofcourse he faced a lot of opposition and criticisation. Many called him a fool, sometimes even religious groups criticised him. But he persevered.

The project was initially aimed at creating a network of underground sewers, hundred of kilometers in length, to improve the health and sanitary conditions in Orangi slum. For the project, Khan used local labour and talent. People were willing to work for their own upliftment, only need was of an efficient leader. Khan filled the gap of the leader, and work began. The project, proving to be a great success, gave a big boost to the standards of living in the locality.

Within a decade of its start, the locals established schools, health clinics, cooperative stores, women’s work centres, and a credit organisation as well! By 1993, OPP had a network of low-cost sewers providing valuable services to more than 72,000 homes! As for statistical facts, expenditures on medicines too, lowered, along with infant mortality rates. Still working in full fledge, the project boasts of three organisations borne out of original OPP: Research and Training Institute, Orangi Charitable Trust, and Karachi Health and Social Development Association. Thus, the project proved to be a huge success, against all its critics! Now was time for Khan to retire and relax…

But as I said, he was just not a guy of that type! Again in 1999 at age of 85, Khan was back, working on a similar, Lodhran Pilot Project! Not to mention, this one was more grand in scale!