Slender, almost frail, with her hair down to her waist, her captivating smile and melodious voice, Parween Rahman was a legend in her lifetime. An assailant’s bullets took her life on Wednesday 13 March, 2013 as she was being driven home from work. The target killer snuffed out her life but the legend that she was will live forever. She was 56 years old.
Parween’s father hailed from Patna and her mother hails from Hyderabad Deccan. Her parents’ families moved to East Pakistan (then East Bengal) after the Partition. During the upheaval leading to the creation of Bangladesh, Parween’s family suffered immensely, as some of its members got separated from one another. They finally moved to present day Pakistan and Parween studied to become an architect at Dawood College of Engineering and Technology. She also obtained a post graduate diploma in housing, building and urban planning from the Institute of Housing Studies in Rotterdam.
The now renowned Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) was launched by Akhtar Hameed Khan in 1980 and Parween joined the organisation in December 1981, remaining with it for the rest of her life. She learnt at the feet of Akhtar Hameed Khan and Arif Hasan whom she always addressed as “guru”. Instinctively, she empathized with Akhtar Hameed Khan’s vision and took to the work of OPP like fish does to water. But as she worked with the communities in Orangi, considered the largest squatter settlement in the region, she did not hesitate to stand up to her mentors, young as she was, on issues on which she held her own opinion.
OPP’s core focus was to facilitate communities by providing them technical assistance to lay down sewerage lines on a self-help basis. For the poor people of Orangi, like most marginalised people, sanitation as an instrument leading to development, was a low priority. In the early days, as OPP mobilised them and broke down social barriers, they used to call Parween “gutter baji” affectionately. She became a specialist on sanitation and water issues and her expertise was sought at home as well as by forums across the world. She could easily have landed a job with any international finance institution or international development network and become a multi-millionaire like so many development consultants and experts, but she never waivered in her loyalty to OPP.
As it is structured today, OPP consists of several institutions. Parween was the director of OPP’s Research and Training Institute which facilitates communities in education, water and sanitation, and relief and rehabilitation. OPP’s Rural Development Trust and the Orangi Charitable Trust are headed by her colleague and close associate, Anwar Rashid. The model developed by OPP has been replicated in many developing countries and is studied in academia throughout the world. In Sindh alone, OPP provides technical assistance to 150 organisations. Inevitably, OPP’s programmes have captured the urge for change among the people, facilitated in providing livilihood, drawn women into the workforce and loosened the hold of the patriarchal system.
Working from her base in Orangi, which is inhabited by members of several ethnic communities, Parween came face to face with the problems of the Karachi. She was part of the alliance of organisations which opposed people-unfriendly development projects such as the Lyari Expressway, elevated mass transit through MA Jinnah Road and the luxurious multi-billion beach development project which would not only have deprived the people of Karachi of access to the beach but also involved massive foreign funds. OPP’s documentation of the sewerage system became the foundation of the S3 sewerage plan for Karachi, based on self-financing, without any foreign aid.
Parween’s remarkable contribution was with respect to the use and misuse of land as an asset in Karachi. Sensitive, professionally meticulous and committed as she was, she mapped the changing patterns of land ownership, an issue which was taboo to many vested interests in the city. She identified the goths where land snatching was taking place, gave their inhabitants the information they required to get themselves regularised and handed them self-financing packages for water and sanitation which remain the basis of OPP’s development approach.
Parween worked fearlessly in the tension-ridden atmosphere in Karachi. Her work brought to the fore her consensus building abilities and while she was wise in the interest of her programmes, she never compromised on ethics. True to the OPP philosophy, she believed that she could never be effective as a development facilitator if there was a great difference between her financial status and that of the members of the community whom she sought to motivate. Therefore, after so many years of service, she drew a monthly salary of only Rs. 32,000/- and the “perks” given to her were a car and a driver, perhaps also the use of a cell phone. How different was her dedication and, therefore, the impact she made from the longing of development doyens who cannot function without drawing hundreds of thousands in monthly salary and whose contribution is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
As her colleagues, followers and admirers came in their hundreds to mourn for her to her modest apartment in Gulistan-e-Jauhar, which was too small to accommodate them, they waited in the pathways of the apartment block and asked the question, who will carry her work forward? I found them as determined to continue that work as Arif Hasan, Anwar Rashid and Parween Rahman had been when Akhtar Hameed Khan passed away in October 1999. She used to say, in her own quiet way, that some people live in palaces, others live on the streets. Our mission should be to raise the quality of life of those who live on the streets.