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The city, the slum and the savior

March 22, 2013

In the beginning there were no slums. When the city of Karachi began, there was enough for everyone. Enough for the British that came searching for a port from where they could lug goodies from their subcontinent back to the factories in their homeland, enough for the traders that came from elsewhere in India to set up shop, to sell and buy and make the profits to pad their pockets. The fishermen, the people who had lived before, stayed near the sea or by the site of two long dried up springs, Kharadar and Meethadar, out of the way of all the newcomers. Karachi before Partition was a sleepy city, a city unburdened by the dreams of people who came to find something more than what they had left behind.

They came after Partition and then never stopped coming. At first, the fuel of dreams and the fervor of a mighty battle won, a colonial power banished intoxicated everyone. Karachi was the capital of the new Pakistan and it was a hopeful city. But as droves of migrants arrived, the population increasing in days and weeks and years from a few hundred thousand to a million and then more, another part of the city was born.

Orangi is one the oldest slums in Karachi and it accommodated those that no other part of the city would take. In the layers of its migrants, all the major epochs of Karachi’s making and breaking and remaking could be found, the first migrants who came from India in the years after Partition, the migrants who came after the war of 1971, and successive waves of migrants that have never stopped coming. Like the hundreds of other “katchi abadis” in Karachi, it represented the cruel undersides of urban life. Coming to life like an organism that grows on what is leftover by others, Orangi had no real roads, no formal education system for the hundreds of children that frolicked on its trash heaps, no clean water for the parched throats of its barely surviving souls. The worst of Orangi’s curses was the trash. Human refuse and animal droppings and the filth of too many lives crammed together, clogging everything.

It was here, that Parveen Rehman chose to work. The woman so suddenly killed by a gunman’s bullet last week was one of the pioneers of saving a slum before such things were fashionable. It was in 1981 that she left her job at an architect’s firm and turned to work in the hapless, ignored Karachi whose existence most city dwellers would like to deny. The Orangi Pilot Project, one of the most successful NGO sanitation projects in the world, developed a system of disposing waste that was managed and controlled by the community itself. In a city wracked by conflict, by military operations and ethnic violence, the Orangi Pilot Project aimed to provide a definition of development that was communally sustainable.

The odds against its success were tremendous. As noted urban planner, Arif Hassan who is one of the leaders of the Orangi Pilot Project has pointed out, Karachi’s planning, when there has been planning, has deliberately and routinely ignored the poor. Huts in informal settlements are routinely razed to accommodate the profiteering whims of this or that developer, and residents forcibly evicted every time they do not fit into the plans of one or the other planning commission. It was against this formidable complex of locally held prejudice, helplessness and want that Parveen Rehman chose to work, quietly, diligently doing the work that no one else wished to do, was brave enough to do.  In a city where millions, easily, unthinkingly turn their heads, Parveen Rehman did not do so.

It was a bullet to the head; shot in the city that she loved that killed Parveen Rehman. In the years that led to the fatal moment, she had refused to abandon the slum that she had worked so hard to save, and for that she was killed. So many have tried to help Karachi, plan for Karachi, improve Karachi but the woman who died last week had shown exactly how it could be done. Through her work at the Orangi Pilot Project, Parveen Rehman had proven that a city with too many problems, too many poor, too little planning and too much political strife can still have hope. Developing and implementing through the simplest of plans, the idea of community led sustainability, she showed that hope among the helpless was not a bad idea.

Parveen Rehman was a savior in a city that defies saving. Her death was not an act against a person it was an act against hope. When a city begins to kill its hopeful, or cannot stop the killing of the hopeful, darkness descends on all the living that is worse than death. With the brave gone, only the cowardly live and turn their faces and look away, convinced that hope is fatal, that hope will kill you, their fear now imbued with the righteousness of believing that the hardness of not caring is a necessity of survival.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.