The title of the booklet containing fatwas in favour of anti-polio vaccination from Muslim scholars all over the world.—White Star
The title of the booklet containing fatwas in favour of anti-polio vaccination from Muslim scholars all over the world.—White Star

KARACHI: On Monday morning, as Maulana Niaz waits for his motorbike to be fixed at a mechanic’s shop in Mohammad Khan Colony, he narrates how clerics became a part of the ongoing polio drive which kicked off in his area the same day at 10am last year. An unassuming person, he is open to questions about the programme, and during the course of the conversation recalls how he had to convince some of his friends in the clergy to join the programme rather than oppose it.

“I convinced one friend from Zia-ul-Uloom Madressah last night,” he says. “I showed him the fatwa by religious scholars from across the Muslim world and asked him to rethink his views. This morning he is not only convinced but also wants to campaign in his area of residence, Torri Chowk, Ittehad Town.”

What he showed to his friend were the recently released booklets containing fatwas (Islamic rulings) from Muslim scholars all over the world, and then drove home his point with a scientific explanation. “I also told him he wouldn’t be able to take his family to either Dubai or Saudi Arabia if his children were not inoculated. Suggestions such as these work on people when they come from someone they know and can trust,” he adds.

Bordering the Northern Bypass, Mohammad Khan Colony reports 700-800 polio refusals per month from residents who are predominantly Mehsuds, Waziris, Hazaras and Swatis. Maulana Niaz is among the four peshimams appointed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the World Health Organisation on March 31 last year to oversee the inoculation process in the eight union councils of Baldia Town, from Gulshan-i-Ghazi to Rasheedabad, under its Religious Support Person (RSP) programme. The international body appointed the president of the JUI-F in Karachi’s West district, Maulana Umar Sadiq, as its Provincial Support Person (PSP). Four areas were marked as trouble spots, which includes localities such as Mohammad Khan Colony, the area around Abu Huraira Madressah, Block-C, and Sector 19-A of Ittehad Town.

Until two years ago, a refusal from a family in any of Baldia Town’s neighbourhoods was taken simply as a ‘no’. But workers close to the programme say that they were eventually asked to inquire about the reasons for refusals and enter them into a form. The first reason many of them received related to ‘religious’ perceptions regarding the vaccine provided. The majority of the families said the vaccine “would cause infertility”.

Read: Lab tests show polio vaccine is not ‘Haram’

The second reason is marked ‘demand’ on the form, which the head of the Abu Huraira Madressah in Ittehad Town, Abdul Kareem Bukhari, explains as “suspicion over the maniacal polio drive specifically in Baldia Town”. The basic argument given by families under the ‘demand’ category, as explained by polio worker, Umar Ahmad, is “the contradiction in provision of services; the lack of attention on infrastructure and apathy with regards to the Basic Health Units (BHUs) in Baldia Town make people question the sincerity behind attention given specifically to the polio drive, resulting in refusals.”

Calling the area between Mohammad Khan Colony and Northern Bypass “the encounter spot of the security forces”, which he believes is used to create a “negative perception about the area”, Bukhari says the authorities understood the need to bring in the clerics to contain overwhelming refusals. Since the JUI-F has political and religious presence in parts of Baldia Town, especially in areas such as Mohammad Khan Colony amongst others, they were contacted first and asked to help.

The funds for the programme are paid directly by the WHO through a grant given by the Gates Foundation, one polio worker said. People such as Maulana Niaz and three others belonging to the trouble spots are paid between Rs7,000 and Rs10,000 depending on the number of days they work in the field. Maulana Umar Sadiq’s salary as a PSP till last year was around Rs24,000 and was increased in the latter part of the year, which created quite a stir among the polio workers. Eventually, the details of the salary were tagged confidential; from this year, his pay cheque started going directly to him.

Former nazim of Ittehad Town Haroon Rashid Adil narrates another incident he considers to be an attempt by the authorities to involve them in the polio drive. “Two years ago, a delegation from the UAE came to visit Ittehad Town with an army commander. During a meeting with us they inquired about misconceptions with regards to polio. We, in turn, questioned the specific focus on polio and negligence in other areas. They seemed sincere and interested but we didn’t quite get their sudden interest in the area,” he explains. They didn’t hear back from the delegates from the UAE, but from that time onwards they came across one or two foreigners tagging along with the polio team in Mohammad Khan Colony, Ittehad Town and Sector 19-A. He quickly adds, though, that they are not against “any inoculation programme and we wholeheartedly support our authorities”.

“It works for us as well,” adds Bukhari about the polio programme. “It helps us give out a message that not every mullah with a beard is a terrorist. And that we care about children as much as anyone else.”

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2016