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The city, the slum and the savior


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In the beginning there were no slums. When the city of Karachi began, there was enough for everyone. Enough for the British that came searching for a port from where they could lug goodies from their subcontinent back to the factories in their homeland, enough for the traders that came from elsewhere in India to set up shop, to sell and buy and make the profits to pad their pockets. The fishermen, the people who had lived before, stayed near the sea or by the site of two long dried up springs, Kharadar and Meethadar, out of the way of all the newcomers. Karachi before Partition was a sleepy city, a city unburdened by the dreams of people who came to find something more than what they had left behind.

They came after Partition and then never stopped coming. At first, the fuel of dreams and the fervor of a mighty battle won, a colonial power banished intoxicated everyone. Karachi was the capital of the new Pakistan and it was a hopeful city. But as droves of migrants arrived, the population increasing in days and weeks and years from a few hundred thousand to a million and then more, another part of the city was born.

Orangi is one the oldest slums in Karachi and it accommodated those that no other part of the city would take. In the layers of its migrants, all the major epochs of Karachi’s making and breaking and remaking could be found, the first migrants who came from India in the years after Partition, the migrants who came after the war of 1971, and successive waves of migrants that have never stopped coming. Like the hundreds of other “katchi abadis” in Karachi, it represented the cruel undersides of urban life. Coming to life like an organism that grows on what is leftover by others, Orangi had no real roads, no formal education system for the hundreds of children that frolicked on its trash heaps, no clean water for the parched throats of its barely surviving souls. The worst of Orangi’s curses was the trash. Human refuse and animal droppings and the filth of too many lives crammed together, clogging everything.

It was here, that Parveen Rehman chose to work. The woman so suddenly killed by a gunman’s bullet last week was one of the pioneers of saving a slum before such things were fashionable. It was in 1981 that she left her job at an architect’s firm and turned to work in the hapless, ignored Karachi whose existence most city dwellers would like to deny. The Orangi Pilot Project, one of the most successful NGO sanitation projects in the world, developed a system of disposing waste that was managed and controlled by the community itself. In a city wracked by conflict, by military operations and ethnic violence, the Orangi Pilot Project aimed to provide a definition of development that was communally sustainable.

The odds against its success were tremendous. As noted urban planner, Arif Hassan who is one of the leaders of the Orangi Pilot Project has pointed out, Karachi’s planning, when there has been planning, has deliberately and routinely ignored the poor. Huts in informal settlements are routinely razed to accommodate the profiteering whims of this or that developer, and residents forcibly evicted every time they do not fit into the plans of one or the other planning commission. It was against this formidable complex of locally held prejudice, helplessness and want that Parveen Rehman chose to work, quietly, diligently doing the work that no one else wished to do, was brave enough to do.  In a city where millions, easily, unthinkingly turn their heads, Parveen Rehman did not do so.

It was a bullet to the head; shot in the city that she loved that killed Parveen Rehman. In the years that led to the fatal moment, she had refused to abandon the slum that she had worked so hard to save, and for that she was killed. So many have tried to help Karachi, plan for Karachi, improve Karachi but the woman who died last week had shown exactly how it could be done. Through her work at the Orangi Pilot Project, Parveen Rehman had proven that a city with too many problems, too many poor, too little planning and too much political strife can still have hope. Developing and implementing through the simplest of plans, the idea of community led sustainability, she showed that hope among the helpless was not a bad idea.

Parveen Rehman was a savior in a city that defies saving. Her death was not an act against a person it was an act against hope. When a city begins to kill its hopeful, or cannot stop the killing of the hopeful, darkness descends on all the living that is worse than death. With the brave gone, only the cowardly live and turn their faces and look away, convinced that hope is fatal, that hope will kill you, their fear now imbued with the righteousness of believing that the hardness of not caring is a necessity of survival.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (13) Closed

RAW is WAR Mar 22, 2013 01:21pm
Dear Ms.Zakaria, do you at least now agree the ugly side of your religion?
KH Mar 22, 2013 04:04pm
The roots of all problem is justice, any society where criminal think that they can avoid punishment, this kind of incident keep happening. Sorry to say I have not seem in this country where any government official got harsh punishment for not fulfilling their responsibilities.
ahmed Mar 22, 2013 05:04pm
Rest in Peace Miss Parveen !
sureshmandan Mar 22, 2013 06:03pm
Parveen Rehman was a brave lady.Equally you,Rafia, are brave for writing so well about Parveen
M Hashim Mar 22, 2013 09:33pm
Noam Chomsky said that America had bought the elite class in Pakistan. And the elite class is none other than the ruling class. Almost every politician in Pakistan is for sale. Wickedness will continue...until the crop of injustice is ready to be cut...... Wake up O you poor people of Pakistan!.... Guillotine those wicked people like the Frenchmen did in their revolution....... only then can you have peace and prosperity.....
Burjor Mar 23, 2013 06:17am
Our society does not produce people like Parveen Rehman because of the trash values we have. Everyone agrees, everyone writes, talks, attends her funeral, gives seminars, what should be done, but no one actually does the work. We do not produce people like her because, from the time we are born, we are told to become successful, not serve humanity, serving humanity as Abdul Sattar Edhi, or Parveen's mentor, and very very few people that we have amongst us are not our ideals, we pity them, write obituaries, write articles as the one above and this one, but never actually do what needs to be done. This is the real shame.
Zohaab Mar 23, 2013 06:58am
a lot of problems of Pakistan could be solved by community work awareness, it is sad to see that anyone who is actually doing some practical work in this area has been shot. my question is why someone would have any thing against someone who is trying to help, without demanding any personal gain for it. May Allah reward her for her sincere efforts in the eternal life ahead.
Anup Mar 23, 2013 11:02am
What an article..especially the last paragraph
Keti Zilgish Mar 23, 2013 01:07pm
Even if she does, its by no means the end of the journey and the ride sure is rough, more like wild, because justice means differently to the supporters and opponents of Mammon.
AHA Mar 23, 2013 01:31pm
All religions have ugly side. There is no 'your' on 'mine' on this matter.
MM Mar 23, 2013 05:27pm
Too much of anything (even good!!) is bad. When you compare societies (including their religions), you need to look beyond just a few decades. South Asia has had severe problems with superstition, cast/creed and injustice. That is why Invaders from all over the world were able to occupy and rule South Asia. Look into the history carefully and you will realize that the "ugly side" you are referring to is not as "ugly" compared to the ugliness of some of the other areas including the one that you may think is divine and perfect.
asad durrani Mar 23, 2013 05:45pm
Rafia sister , Thank you for the nostalgic reminder.
Tanveer Iqbal Mar 24, 2013 06:29am
I like the way writer write this article.Faiz sb says Nisar teri galion ke ae watan Chali he rasm k koi na sar utha k chale.