Obituary: Lifelong mission of mercy

Published July 9, 2016
In this photo, Abdul Sattar Edhi can be seen collecting donations on the street.
In this photo, Abdul Sattar Edhi can be seen collecting donations on the street.

In a country where staying free of controversy is rare indeed, Abdul Sattar Edhi’s decades in the glare of public attention came to an end yesterday with his reputation for doing good intact. He will long be remembered for having spent his life in the selfless service of man.

Born in Bantva, Gujarat, Edhi migrated to Pakistan with his family in 1947. His father was in the trading business, primarily dealing with cloth, and that was the line of work that the young Edhi thought he would follow too.

But in several interviews with the press over the years, he said that he was appalled by the pain he saw around him, even as the horror of Partition unfolded over the subcontinent. The family having rented a small room in a building in Karachi’s Jodia Bazaar, they set about doing what they could. They put up a tent in Mithadar’s Sarafa Bazaar and, calling in a few doctors from the Civil Hospital for aid, established 11 mobile dispensaries on the city footpaths.

Today, on that same spot, is the Edhi Centre; what started as a small philanthropic effort by a soul that felt keenly for the pain of others has grown into one of the largest charity networks in the world — and one, remarkably, that operates overwhelmingly on private donations. Edhi opened his first free dispensary in 1951, and gradually expanded operations from one locality in Karachi to the city and then across the country and, eventually, even abroad.

Today, the Edhi Foundation runs dozens of free hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages, nursing homes, kitchens, shelters for old people and rehabilitation centres for drug addicts all over Pakistan. The welfare organisation operates graveyards and morgues, and a vast fleet of the ambulances that are usually the first on the scene after accidents or acts of terrorism or militancy. Edhi workers brave gun fights, riots and ethnic or criminal battles, collect bodies of abandoned children and unidentified victims; outside the Sarafa Bazaar head office, drug addicts share footpath space with on-call ambulance drivers — the dispatchers field over 6,000 calls a day in Karachi alone.

Along with his wife Bilquis, a nurse with whom he worked and then married in 1966, Edhi provided the inspiration and the dedication for the running of this massive operation. Usually, the task of managing such an organisation means that those in charge end up having to distance themselves from the active field of operations.

But that was far from the case with Edhi. Dressed always in a simple black tunic, he would often be seen sitting with the driver of an ambulance with a wailing siren, eliciting donations in person or helping a Foundation worker with a task, no matter how difficult.

The course he chose in life required steely resolve, and he told one interviewer in 2009 that his experience during the 1965 war with India, when several parts of Karachi were bombed, was what contributed in large parts to what he became: “[My wife and I] collected body parts of women and children … my wife took charge of bathing the women and I did the rest. My heart became so hard after that, that I made humanity my religion and devoted my life to it.”

Direct interventions by the Edhi Foundation have helped thousands of people over the decades. One of the less talked-about ones are the jhoolas (cradles) that started being placed outside Edhi centres after Edhi and his wife were horrified by the realisation that children who were unwanted by their families for some reason were being killed or abandoned to die. Babies found in these jhoolas are cared for by the Foundation, and many find new guardian families. Over the years, the organisation has facilitated thousands of guardianship cases in Pakistan and abroad.

But Edhi also went beyond direct interventions. It was he who filed a petition, for example, that children with unknown biological parentage should be able to apply for national identity cards, which was eventually settled in the petitioner’s favour. He was also summoned some years ago by the Sindh High Court to assist the court in legal points raised in a petition seeking the inclusion of guardians’ names in the identity documents of children of unknown biological parentage.

While Edhi never went to school, he received an honorary doctorate degree from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Karachi, in 2006, and another from Bedfordshire University, England, in 2010. When he had time to read, he told many interviewers, it was generally Marxist texts and material on human rights, which he said often was like his religion. Over the course of his life he received and was nominated for several prestigious domestic and international awards. Those listed on the Edhi Foundation website include the Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service (the Philippines, 1986), the Paul Harris Fellow (Rotary International Foundation, 1993) and the Peace Prize from the former USSR for services in the Armenian earthquake disaster in 1988. Domestic recognitions of his work include the Nishan-i-Imtiaz (1989) and several others. He was nominated by the government for the Nobel Peace Prize, and was also shortlisted for the 2011 Tipperary International Peace Prize. In 1996, his autobiography A Mirror to the Blind (as narrated to Tehmina Durrani), was published.

Despite his advancing years, Edhi remained actively involved with the Foundation’s work till the very end, even though since 2013 he had been struggling with kidney disease and had been under treatment at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation in Karachi.

In some cultures, it is held that a man cannot be considered to have left this world as long as any deed he did lives on; as long as a tree he planted remains alive, or the crop he sowed remains unharvested. Abdul Sattar Edhi, by this reckoning, will live far beyond his mortal lifespan.

He is survived by Bilquis Edhi, two daughters and two sons.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2016

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