Orangi Pilot Project team relocate amid growing threats

Published June 1, 2015
Of the many projects OPP was working on, the regularisation of goth land garnered the most controversy.—Courtesy: OPP-RT
Of the many projects OPP was working on, the regularisation of goth land garnered the most controversy.—Courtesy: OPP-RT

KARACHI: The deserted corridors of the Orangi Pilot Project-Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI) were a distressing sight to behold. Once the hub of much activity that saw researchers, social workers and students, local and foreign, actively take part in the various projects the OPP was involved in, an eerie silence overwhelms the current staff. They are a mere shadow of the original team that frequented the premises before OPP director Parween Rahman was gunned down in March 2013. The silence echoes, narrating tales of lives lost and projects left in the lurch.

Parween’s murder case is still pending in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. What is worrisome is the current status of the project she has left behind. Parween’s sister, Aquila Ismail, who still hasn’t come to terms with her death, reveals how “the subsequent leadership of OPP, after the death of Parween, have been repeatedly threatened”.

Also read: Parveen Rehman: a fighter for the poor silenced

The current director, Anwar Rashid, has received numerous threats through text messages, discouraging him from returning to work or to his home.

Petitioners of the case against Parween’s killers, as well as OPP team members seem to be asking one recurring question — why is it that the urgency of the threats have increased and that none of the authorities seem to be making an effort to reign them in.

According to Ms Ismail, “This is an attack on OPP. Vested parties are out to completely shut down the project.” The original team that worked with Parween has been pulled out from the Orangi premises and relocated; out of 35, only two remain behind. A small administrative staff works alongside to help keep functional the many projects OPP was involved in. Mr Rashid, too, has relocated after threats against him increased.

Of the many projects OPP was working on, the regularisation of goth land garnered the most controversy. Working alongside the PPP government, Parween had helped facilitate this process by establishing the existence of more than 2,000 goths. Around the time of her death, 1,063 goths had been regularised with more than 1,000 others pending. After her murder, not a single goth has been regularised so far.

“Land is what fills up people’s pockets,” explained Ms Ismail. “We are sure this is the reason behind her murder and the increasing threats against OPP. Hundreds and thousands will be evicted to make space for a few thousand by clearing out unregularised goths and making way for big development projects. To achieve this, they are willing to destroy an institution that strives to uplift the lives of the poor.”

The regularisation gives goth settlers, mostly comprising the extreme poor, an edge over land grabbers and developers. Not only does it make it harder for them to evict the settlers through unlawful means, but the price of the land also increases manifold. These factors, according to the petitioners of the case, do not sit well with the land mafia and real estate developers.

On the severity of the threats, Parween’s mentor and chairman of the board, Arif Hasan, said: “An organisation that is constantly threatened finds it difficult to function with confidence. People within OPP feel strongly about it and there is a strong sense of loyalty but such obvious threats have left them nervous.”

He spoke about how the project is suffering due to the relocation of the team. “Projects related to land development can only function from a place where the work is being done and not from somewhere far. We would like to go back to Orangi and had decided to do so, but given the present circumstances we are having second thoughts.”

About these threats, Advocate Faisal Siddiqi said there were several petitioners but only the OPP director was being threatened “because he is running the organisation. There are two objectives behind these threats. One is to subvert the case and the other is to subvert OPP.”

He also shared his surprise at “how far the case has come that became possible because certain people had the courage to pursue it, and with the help of institutions, especially the Honourable Supreme Court, which considered it their public responsibility that this case should not go unaccounted.”

Rampant accusations were levelled against the authorities of trying to cover-up the true cause behind Parween’s murder when the case was declared solved by the police just days after her murder and suspects killed in ‘police encounters’. However, after the apex court ordered a fresh probe, a joint investigative team was set up to investigate her murder. Various individuals and organisations have urged transparency in these investigations and the case seems to be making headway with the arrest of prime suspect Ahmed Khan alias Pappu Kashmiri in Mansehra this March two years after her murder on March 13, 2013.

Semblance of security

Another aspect that has raised much criticism is the role of the Sindh government. Many believe the government has not played a productive part in catching the killers or protecting the lives of those at OPP. Despite a police security van appearing off and on at the OPP office to provide a semblance of security, the staff there does not feel reassured.

Police authorities said they had not acquired ‘additional manpower’ from the district or zone to enhance security of the OPP staff and building, and the law-enforcement agency was catering to the requirement through available resources.

“We don’t have additional force for that purpose,” said Orangi Town SP Ali Asif.

“We are providing them due security through available force at the police station level. Though the OPP management has not approached us for such measures, we are doing that on our own without any particular security threat or intelligence report.”

OPP, a pro-poor institution, has been working on projects as diverse as sanitation, secure housing, reproductive health, education and even microfinance credit. Its model is said to have been adapted in different parts of the country, as well as in countries such as India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. With an outreach that touches the lives of people from Sindh, parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as southern Punjab, the programme has changed people’s lives. However, many believe that if threats to the organisation remain unchecked, OPP may be unable to sustain itself.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2015

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