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Who will dare to be Parveen Rehman?

Updated May 07, 2016 02:22pm
Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro
Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro

That is the question that the NGO world, still reeling from the shock of Parveen’s target killing in Orangi Township in Karachi, is now asking itself. At a memorial meeting held in Islamabad this week, NGO workers spoke of the “growing hostile environment for community service in Pakistan”. Parents are now telling their children not to enter into this field, because clearly, “community service is becoming dangerous”. The NGO officials from established organisations like Plan International, Aurat Foundation, the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center and the Imran Khan Foundation called for increased accountability and a minimum standard of protection for social workers. A call was given out to “respect, promote and support community service in Pakistan”.

“Parveen Rehman knew of the risks and yet, she willingly continued with her work. She chose to do this”, pointed out Dr Rakshinda Parveen of the Society for Advancement of Community, Health Education and Training (SACHET). There is no doubt that Parween Rehman was an extraordinarily brave woman. A trained architect who could have lived a comfortable life in Karachi’s up-market Defense or Clifton areas, she instead chose to dedicate her life to the poor of the squatter settlements of Orangi Town. She was the dearly departed Dr Akhter Hameed Khan’s (a development guru) brightest and as it turned out, bravest, student and with good reason he chose her to continue with his pioneering work in Orangi.

Parveen had been working at a private architecture firm before being recruited by Dr Akhter Hameed Khan to become Joint Director of the Orangi Pilot Project back in the early 1980s. She was put in charge of managing the housing and sanitation programmes. In 1988, OPP was split into four organisations, and Parveen Rahman became director of the OPP-RTI (Orangi Pilot Project – Research and Training Institute), managing programmes in education, youth training, water supply and secure housing. In 1999, Dr Akhter Hameed Khan passed away and Parveen remained steadfast in carrying the torch.

She would often describe Orangi’s population of 1.5 million people as “a great example of self-help initiatives”. The people of Orangi on a self-help basis (and with technical guidance from the OPP) established modern underground sewer lines and built latrines in their homes. The government only contributed by building the main sewers or nallahs. In Orangi, the people and the government became partners in development. The people of Orangi set up 650 private schools and opened 700 medical clinics, while establishing 40,000 small enterprises in various homes. Around 60 per cent became self-employed. Orangi consists of 113 settlements inhabited by various ethnic groups: Pathans, Balochis, Muhajirs, Biharis, Punjabis etc. It was set up in the 1960s by the government but it expanded very fast in 1981-82 when refugees from former East Pakistan began to settle there.

“Parveen’s community work with the OPP was lessening the differences between the various ethnic groups. The people of the area don’t really have issues with each other – the land and water mafias affiliated to various political groups like the PPP, ANP and MQM are the ones causing all the problems,” explained Aurangzeb from the Al Falah Development Foundation based in Rawalpindi. Although much older than her in years, Aurangzeb considered Parveen to be his teacher and worked closely with her in the last few years. He attended her funeral in Karachi and said that thousands of people in Orangi are mourning her death. “She was very compassionate and it is a personal loss to all of us who work with the poor. For the people of Orangi, she was like a mother who cared for everyone and brought people together in the township”.

Parween was murdered by masked men who shot at her car on Banaras Pul in Orangi (near the ANP controlled area). She was on her way home from work in the afternoon. Recently, she had had been documenting land-use around Karachi, and this may have upset the city's powerful land-grabbing criminals. She was also opposed to the “tanker mafia” who were stealing tube-well/piped water from low-income communities and then selling it back to them in water tankers. Parveen investigated the water shortage in the area and actually discovered that a crucial piece of pipe was missing and had it replaced.

According to Aurangzeb, these mafias have the patronage of politicians and have become even more powerful in recent years. “The situation has deteriorated since the PPP government came to power. These mafias have actually occupied various areas of Karachi and forcibly take bhatta (extortion money) from the local residents who live in fear of them. They are gangsters who are looting the public and really if the local people were given protection by the police or Rangers they would evict these criminals themselves. They are so fed up of them”.

Although the police is now attempting to shift the blame for Parveen’s murder onto the Taliban (who have not claimed responsibility for the attack) and other religious groups, the NGO world is convinced that it was these powerful land and water mafias who are responsible for her death.

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“Parveen meticulously documented 500 goths (settlements) in Orangi, teaching young people to do the mapping and data collection. She regularised these settlements and the land mafia didn’t like it one bit,” explained Fayyaz Baqir, another close acquaintance of Parveen who heads the Dr Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Center. “In fact, at one stage the land mafia even tried unsuccessfully to take over the OPP office building itself. Parween would receive threats all the time”. The OPP staff had actually been forced to stop work for a month while the land mafia occupied their office in the hope of forcing them off the plot (once peripheral but now well-located). They had to negotiate with other power brokers who recognised their contribution to improving people’s lives and were willing to intercede to enable them to continue with their work.

The day after Parveen was killed, the OPP decided to open up its office and hundreds of NGO workers from all over Karachi came to Orangi to show their solidarity. “We must continue with her work, we cannot be deterred by her murderers”, vowed Fayyaz Baqir at the meeting in Islamabad. Along with the heads of other NGOs in the capital, he is organising an open house at the Islamabad Hotel on Thursday at 4pm to “express solidarity with Parveen Rehman”. Civil society members, the media, university students and trade unions are all invited to come and learn about this amazing woman and to ensure that others, especially amongst the younger generation, will indeed dare to be like her.