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Mushtaq Chhapra | Tahir Jamal / White Star
Mushtaq Chhapra | Tahir Jamal / White Star

We are in the staff room of Cyberknife, a robotic state-of-the-art technology centre for cancer treatment on the premises of Karachi’s Jinnah Hospital. It is where businessman and philanthropist extraordinaire Mushtaq Chhapra, who has helped set up the facility, has finally agreed to meet me during his busy day’s schedule. As we settle down, I start off by inquiring about the unusual — though technically correct — double ‘h’ in his surname.

“Good question but bad timing,” says the indefatigable respondent, “you are 14 years too late. You should have asked my father, to whom I owe everything.”

“Philanthropy runs in his blood,” remarks a radiologist sitting in a corner of the room.

He is a successful businessman on the one hand and has helped establish widely lauded initiatives such as The Citizens Foundation and the Patients’ Aid Foundation on the other. How does Mushtaq Chhapra find the time?

“He has conducted my blood test,” quips Chhapra, sporting his characteristic disarming smile. “But, on a serious note, I must add that my father has been my role model, all through my life. Apart from helping individuals in different ways, he was heading the Adults Blind Centre and was also involved in the social work undertaken by the Lion’s Club.”

At least I know now where Chhapra gets his motivation from. He has been involved in establishing a number of philanthropic initiatives that have received wide acclaim, such as The Citizens Foundation (TCF) and the Patients’ Aid Foundation (PAF) of which the Cyberknife department is only one project. The PAF has been helping provide quality free healthcare through the government-run Jinnah Hospital, sharing the government’s burden, for almost 30 years now.

Earlier, on the phone Chhapra had asked me when I would like to meet him and had suggested an early morning hour. He moves around a lot. I had told him I couldn’t keep pace with him for he gets up very early in the morning and, after saying his prayers, drives to the Karsaz Golf Club where he is on the course for a couple of hours before taking a shower and a proper breakfast. His flat belly is proof enough of his six-days-a-week bout with golf.

By about 9.30 pm he is in the office of the newly set up OPD and Surgical Complex on the premises of Jinnah Hospital, Karachi.

Born in 1949, a year after his parents migrated to Pakistan and settled down in Karachi, Chhapra studied in St Lawrence’s School but didn’t pursue his education beyond high school. His father inducted him into what was then the state-of-the-art H.M. Silk Mills, which was set up by the senior Chhapra in collaboration with the Maker and Karim families at SITE.

“I was there for 10 years and worked my way up, starting from cleaning the floors to managing the entire factory,” he says. In the process, he says he gained invaluable experience.

Mushtaq Chhapra then left to establish his own plastic factory, which is now being run by a team comprising his younger brother, his nephew and his own son. He does have an office in the factory’s head office at Korangi Crossing but even there he doesn’t sit for more than an hour.

“Now plastic is a very wide term, what exactly do you make?”

“We manufacture food grade plastic bottles for companies which produce beverages, fruit juices and mineral water. In another section of the factory we buy used soft drink bottles, wash them and recycle them into plastic granules, which are bought by secondary manufacturers who produce such things as plastic chairs, buckets, etc. So, don’t worry, we are not contributing to pollution. On the contrary, we are combating pollution,” says Chhapra almost in one breath.

As someone who has visited Jinnah Hospital from time to time, I have been heartened to see some welcome changes such as the setting up of a blood bank, a drug bank, and a lab tests sections where MRI, CT scans, angiographies and endoscopies, to name a few, are conducted free of charge. All of this has been made possible by interventions from the PAF. I have not yet seen but also keep hearing about the orthopaedics section, where artificial limbs are provided to poor patients, age and gender notwithstanding.

As I sip from a fresh cup of coffee, I hear Chhapra talk about the most modern Cyberknife treatment where cancer patients are treated successfully through precise, painless and non-invasive radiation. The success rate, he says, is to the tune of 99 per cent but patients undergo radiological tests before being selected for treatment.

The Cyberknife treatment machine, imported at a cost of four million US dollars, was installed in December 2012. Not many countries can boast of such machines and it is heartening to hear that, aside from patients from all over Pakistan, cancer victims from eight other countries have also benefitted from the facility.

As Mushtaq Chhapra answers an ‘urgent phone call’, I glance through the leaflet given to me which mentions, among other surprising facts, that while the cost of a two-hour treatment of the Cyberknife varies from 50,000 dollars to 90,000 dollars in the US, here in Karachi, the figure does not exceed 1,000 dollars. However, if you calculate the conversion on the current dollar rates, and multiply it by nine, which is the number of patients treated every day, the amounts expended become mind-boggling. There is an earnest appeal for zakat and donations in the leaflet. I guess, like all of us, Mushtaq Chhapra and his colleagues must be duly concerned by the soaring cost of the dollar vis-à-vis Pakistani currency.

As I enjoy my cup of coffee, he is back. “Why didn’t you call me to your office?” I ask. “Much that I would have loved to, I had to squeeze you between two meetings in this room. But let me assure you that when you come here next time, we shall meet in the PAF chairman’s secretariat, and I will see to it that you are served coffee in a larger cup with a plate full of biscuits to accompany it,” comes the answer.

The man, who thinks and works on many different fronts, is surprisingly quite cool. Anyone else would be restless. He also makes it a point to ring back if he is unable to answer a call on his over-worked cell phone.

What does he do on Sundays, I ask him. “I stay at home and spend quality time with my wife and children,” he replies. His wife doubles as a home-maker and occasionally a helping hand in his social work.

The conversation changes to the well-known educational foundation TCF, which Chhapra helped set up on a modest scale 24 years ago. “We were six friends who met once a week and grumbled about the sorry state of affairs in the country. One day one of us said we should do something worthwhile. We all agreed. The field chosen by us was education and the target we set up was building five schools in the first year and 1,000 in the first decade.”

Today, TCF runs 1,567 schools which provide high quality education at a fee as low as 160 rupees per month. Parents who can’t even afford to pay the paltry amount, pay as little as 20 rupees per month. As for the teachers, they regularly undergo refresher training.

Is TCF doing anything in the field of adult education, I ask. “Yes, we also use the school buildings for what we call adult literacy programmes,” says Chhapra. There are as many as 600 such centres all over Pakistan.

Given the scale of the work TCF and PAF do, it is almost mindboggling that Chhapra, who is intimately involved with both, finds time for his business or his golf. But then, obviously, he is particularly strong with time management. Almost as if on cue, while I muse about this, Mushtaq Chhapra apologises to me, saying that he has another meeting to attend.

I beg one last question: “What is your dream?”

“It may not come true,” he offers, “but I wish I could live up to the day when there would be no child deprived of education and no patient unable to get medical treatment in our country.” He extends his hand to me. How many hands he shakes on every working day is anybody’s guess.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 19th, 2019