Perween Rahman, the woman behind the Orangi Pilot Project, was killed by land mafia some six months ago but her killers have not yet been brought to justice. ..  


By Najma Sadeque

When Perween Rahman’s life was ended by the powerful land and water mafia, there was such an outpouring of writings both at home and abroad on her long and selfless service which directly and radically changed the lives of at least half a million people – more likely much more when she extended her work to other parts of the country, especially the flood-affected areas – there seemed to be little left to write about.


But six months have passed since she was taken from us and her killers have not yet been brought to justice. Some ask how it is any different from the thousands of other mafia killings of which the known perpetrators have been roaming free for years on end. But the case of Perween Rahman is indeed different from others, the attention to which could mean the achievement of justice for all. Working for the Orangi Pilot Project for the past two decades and as its head since 1999, it was very different from that of most other NGOs. It involved dealing with some of the most personal and private issues of people’s lives that affected their work performance and opportunities.


Perween’s ‘crime’ was that she was rendering services that were actually the government’s job but which they carried out only for the elite and upper middle-class, leaving the low-income and poor out in the cold. That created huge space and opportunity for land-grabbing and selling rackets, and it started not long after the inception of Pakistan. In the past decade or so, worsening crimes included killings because people failed to pay ‘bhatta’ (protection money) or for resisting to vacate their homes or workplaces on land which could bring huge profits to the mafia.


Initially, these were groups of small-time crooks who struck up deals with the government functionaries overseeing lands for urban housing and the police for ensuring non-interference in their criminal activities. But even the smallest but lucrative activity, if left untouched by legal action for decade after decade, will grow. Not only did it grow, it was copycatted by new groups, cutting across ethnicities, language, political links and socio-economic status. It mushroomed into large and highly-organised gangs of mafiosi to rule the roost most strongly for the last four decades, successfully enforcing their own law with arms and threats, resorting to torture and murder if anyone reported them or resisted too much.


It wasn’t a matter of a few people being affected but most of Pakistan’s biggest city of 18 million that stubbornly continued to grow after illegally swallowing up a thousand-odd little hamlets and villages in the process, without any compensation or alternatives provided when evicted.


Bare survival began to depend on whether families including the displaced migrating from the interior into the city, had the means to buy land on which to build a home. Most couldn’t, and many tried to rent on which to make temporary shelter. Control of all such spaces being effectively entrenched in mafia hands, they could even run ‘housing’ rackets for the low-income as well, who would be allowed to pay regularly what they could afford, but for the rest of their lives, and perhaps by the subsequent generation as well.


Perween knew all this including the risks, and yet she took a stand. She felt things had gone too far. She found out the mafia’s latest plans with specific details for the further ‘expansion’ of Karachi. In the hope of a just government coming to power, which Perween believed had to happen sooner or later when things got out of hand and there was no other solution to the survival of people and the economy, she began to sound warnings, and then to speak out.


She was correct in her thinking, but given that Karachi was at the height of violence, both political and criminal, and that self-serving or cowardly concerned elements in government were not listening, perhaps she should have waited a little longer to come out in the open, such as now. But it is uncertain that she still would not have met with the same fate. After all, she was determined to expose the mafia and doggedly remained on that path.


The mafia may have removed the immediate threat to their plans by removing Perween, but the danger remains of their racket continuing unhindered if the course of normal justice is not restored to Karachi and the country. For the past six months since she was killed, colleagues, friends and civil society in general have been calling for her killers to be brought to book. An FIR was made against unknown assailants and nothing has been done since.


When civil society finally filed for suo moto notice in the Supreme Court for a proper investigation to be conducted, the Registrar, incredulously enough, objected to it being admitted for a hearing because he reportedly felt Perween’s murder was merely a ‘law and order matter’, and therefore should be filed in the Sindh High Court instead.  The fact that she had been deliberately targetted for being a threat to the land mafia, was completely ignored. Furthermore, similar land mafia rackets have spread all over Pakistan, especially urban areas, certainly making it a matter of wider, national concern.


The refusal to catch and deal the killers will mean conscious official retention of the status quo by acts of omission. The mafia to reign supreme, and development, housing, water supply and sanitation to remain subject to their criminal and profiteering dictates, as will the oppression of millions. Only the wider pressure of civil society can change that.


Upfront and personal


Perween’s approach, as she said, necessarily had to be personal and direct. The first step to innocuous and obvious-sounding needs of housing wasn’t all that simple. It was directly linked to the immediate living conditions that families had to put up with.


“When people think of sanitation, they just think in terms of water pipelines and sewage drains which was the government’s job, not in terms of what they themselves had to do to be safe,” she explained. “When one walked through the lanes of kacchi abadis and in their house, one would have to watch out for the danger of slipping and falling into the filth, because sewage would be overflowing from shallow kaccha drains, children defecating all over the place outdoors and even at their doorsteps because there were no proper toilets.”


“I would ask them – as Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, our founder, used to, and from whom I learned everything – how long were they willing to wait for government to come and build the necessary infrastructure. Forever? While they suffered disease and death from preventable causes that in turn stopped them from improving their lives? Besides, building toilets was not the government’s job. If they only built toilets with septic tanks, they would avoid polluting the lanes and prevent chronic communicable diseases, and immediately improve hygiene within their homes.”


“It’s not easy to explain when people have no concept of how disease is caused and spread. How can they know if they were never taught, if they don’t get enough clean water to be able to keep clean? But it is not impossible to explain and persuade either. It needs time and patience. It may need many, many visits to the same homes, talking to both the women and men of all the houses on that lane, coaxing them to invest a little of their own money in toilets – that is the hardest of all – for the good of the entire family and locality. But we would provide the expertise and supervision so that they could get quality work down at the cheapest possible cost.”


“Once we successfully helped improve one lane of houses, people from other lanes would come and inspect and be impressed enough to consider doing the same. It was a matter of going house to house, lane by lane. And then it’s the entire locality and then an entire township. Once they had spent their own money, they understood benefits remained with upkeep. And they did that. After that it is so much easier to get them into other self and community development works.” The results on the ground are there for all to see.


One could add a genuine and active concern for the underdog. Gentle persuasion came easily to the warm, soft-spoken and ever-smiling Perween – from the very beginning, she just wanted to serve. As architect-planner-activist Arif Hasan pointed out, when she died she was drawing a mere 32,000/- salary – by choice – because she felt there should be no huge income gaps between people. She left a promising career as an architect because she found it benefitted only the well-off. She preferred to put her knowledge to ordinary people’s real housing needs.


Time, patience, personal outreach, not giving up, never taking no for a final answer but returning to try and try again, getting people to discuss the details and apply the possibilities of home improvements the way they would like them to be, maintaining contacts and feedback, tangible results to last a lifetime – together they all contributed towards changing people’s lives, not by approaching any one of them in isolation or in compartmentalized ‘specializations’. Because people’s lives are not compartmentalized either. – A lesson that many NGOs may still have to learn

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