Parween Rehman: Lane by Lane

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

pr-photoPerween Rehman is most at ease sitting with a group of people, especially if they are from a katchi abadi (low-income settlement) and can exchange ideas with her. A qualified architect, she heads
the well known Orangi Pilot Project- Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI) in Karachi. There are piles of papers waiting for her and scores of meetings with Government Officials and their partners. But poor people are more important. And herein lies the success of the project, for people are “their own best resource”. Rehman radiates warmth. She smiles easily and frequently bursts into a chortle. You marvel as you listen to her with rapt attention, trying to figure out why she is the way she is. “I am an optimist. The maximum I can remain depressed for is ten minutes,” she tells you later when you interview her in a spacious, well-ventilated meeting room in OPP’s office, in Orangi.


“Maybe it has to do with what happened to us in East Pakistan,” and she begins her story. “I was in Class IX, in 1971, when Pakistan lost its eastern half (present Bangladesh). I was spoilt and pampered, being the youngest among four siblings and was like any teenager, obsessed with music, friends and partying”. Life was a never-ending joyride till the day the Mukti Bahini came to Mirpur, in Dhaka, where Rehman lived with her middle class parents. Rehman was transported to the seventies of East Pakistan. “We
saw people being killed, right in front of us. They separated the men from the women. I thought this would be the last I’d see of my father”.

Rehman, the Architect It was in her final year of studying architecture, in 1982, when Rehman, a star student of Dawood College of Engineering and Technology, Karachi, realised that what she was being taught was “not relevant”. “I was really confused. I didn’t know why I’d taken up architecture. The way the architects were designing was all wrong and the way they were treating young architects was worse,” was her first impression.

She had been visiting katchi abadis and had become interested in the social networks that existed there. Unwittingly, she was chalking out her future. The next two decades saw her totally committed to understanding development in the poor settlements of Karachi.

Even before her graduation, she landed in one of Karachi’s highflying architectural firms. She didn’t last there for even a month. After graduating, she got another plum job but her heart was just never in it. Restless, yet not knowing exactly why, she started exploring the city of Karachi by herself.

One morning she read about a low-cost housing project by some United Nations agency in Orangi, and decided to visit the place herself. A few hours later, she was in the office of the late Dr. Akhtar Hameed Khan, the renowned Pakistani social scientist. “I still remember my first encounter vividly. It was quite fascinating. It was a tiny room, with barely any natural light. I didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Rehman. “’Doctor Sahib’ looked me up and down and asked why I had come. I said I wanted to work,” she narrated her first meeting in detail. “He sat next to me and listened attentively to all my woes as a disillusioned youngster”. The thing that struck her was the respect he gave to her.

Every Saturday after that, she would be in Khan’s office in Orangi and among the people with whom she felt most at ease. He gave her an assignment, a sanitation model that was not working. “He wanted me to go into the community, talk to the people and find out what was wrong with it”. At that time the OPP was not providing technical guidelines. It was providing maps and motivating people to work on a self-help basis. “It became evident that leaving things to the masons doesn’t work. You have to provide technical guidance. This resulted in a lot of conflict within our office.”


In 1983, Rehman formally joined OPP as a full time architect to provide technical guidance. Rehman said that Khan was very clear that his work needed social organisation and technical guidance, provided by professionals. “He tried getting professionals but they were not willing to work at the kind of salary he was offering,” she said ruefully.

On the other hand, despite low wages and long hours, Rehman just took to the work. “I am lucky to have worked with the best. At the OPP you learn as you grow. It teaches you that you can have a good life even in simplicity”. She described OPP variously during the course of the interview – as “a way of life”; an “attitude”, a “catalyst”, “great people’s work”, an “urban phenomenon”, a “movement”, but not a project.

She has fond memories of the eighteen year relationship with Khan. “He taught me a way of life. When I first joined I would fight with a lot of the other team members. Fresh out of college, armed with a degree, I thought I knew more than them and ordered them around. Naturally there were many rifts”. Khan taught her to “first acknowledge what you lack, try and see who has those skills and then stick to them like a leech and pick their brains!”

When Rehman joined the OPP, she was the only woman among a group of men. Somehow, water and sanitation have long

Orangi not a Slum
Orangi Town, once a blighted settlement, is often referred to as Karachi’s biggest slum.

Today, Rehman takes it as a personal affront if anyone calls Orangi a slum. She’d prefer the term “poor, unofficial settlements”. To her, slum, a derogatory term, means “physical and social degradation”. “But here, in Orangi, you won’t find one dirty lane!” she points out. “Even legally it does not come under the purview of a katchi abadi. It has been notified by the Government. In fact, 72 percent of Karachi settlements, which were once bracketed as slums, have been notified.”

“The Government likes to use the term to get donor funding,” she says.

pr-workingremained a male-dominated sector. But that did not deter her in any way. In 1988, the OPP branched out as three independent institutions. The OPP-RTI takes care of sanitation, housing, education, water-supply and secure housing; the OPP-OCT (Orangi Charitable Trust) and the OPP-KHASDA (Karachi Health and Social Development Association). Today, there are 24 women in all the three programmes, including six working in water and sanitation. “I think it’s very important to have men and women working in a team. Women learn to be assertive and men become gentler,” she said.

However, she feels w o m e n h a v e a n advantage over men in the development field, especially vis-à-vis the poor. “As a woman working in the field it was very easy for me to enter a household and talk to the women. That gave me an edge over the men in my team and let me look at issues in a more detailed manner”.With OPP-RTI now actively lobbying with the Local Government, R e h m a n , b e i n g a woman, finds it easier to meet the Mayor. “My male counterpart may well be made to wait for hours before being allowed an audience. Women are treated with more respect!”

But to be taken seriously, women in the water sector, have to prove that they are technically knowledgeable. “Only then they would be accepted,” says Rehman. She experienced that too. “I was young and talking about serious issues. For many, who were not used to women in this area, it was initially a little difficult to digest. But once they started working with me, things were different and acceptance was forthcoming”.

Women as Motivators
After over two decades of working with women in the urban areas, Rehman quickly puts to rest the long-held view that women have no say in decision-making. “My experience has been otherwise. However, women may be using men as their mouthpiece and it may seem that men are making that decision. Women, by nature, are not assertive but gentle persuaders. We had to take women on board first. Men may have laid the pipes, but it was the women who collected the money; they were the mobilisers. I’d say things are a lot less complicated if you involve women!”

Rehman gives the example of Dadi Ama, the octogenarian who went door to door, convincing the people to lay the sewers. Single-handedly she collected money for the work from all 50 houses in her lane. It was the first lane in Orangi’s Mujahid Colony where OPP carried out sanitation work.

The OPP took people into its confidence and started by advocating for the development of an underground sewerage system, one lane at a time, without a master plan, and convincing the Local Government to “build and improve on the existing external drainage system of the rest of Karachi, which would cost less than starting a new system”.

OPP – one lane at a time
Once swarming with flies and mosquitoes, over-flowing soak-pits, bucket latrines, sludge and sewage, Orangi, with a population of 1.4 million spread over 113 settlements was considered an eyesore even by Government Officials.

Thirty years later, OPP-RTI proudly show-cases its biggest success story to local and foreign urban planners, donor agencies, NGOs, community activists working in water supply and sanitation, and even anthropologists.

The transformation of Orangi can undoubtedly be attributed to a vibrant, three-way partnership among community, civil society and state, based on the philosophy of the late Akhtar Hameed Khan. He believed that by mobilising and organising the community you can enable them to find their own alternatives in accessing municipal services.

It costs a household, on an average around PKR 1900 (USD 23) to contribute towards the underground sewerage line and a sanitary latrine. This development is called ‘internal’ development by Rehman who said similar improvements done by the City Government would cost five times more. To date, Orangi residents have installed sewerage and water lines in 6,934 lanes, serving 100, 000 houses. The people’s work has been complemented by the Government which laid the main trunk lines.

Over the years, OPP- RTI’s work has expanded and been replicated beyond Orangi Town. “We have grown in different ways”. From one neighbourhood, lane by lane, the initiative spread to the entire city and from a community project it became a communitycivil society-government partnership.

Emphasising documentation, the OPP-RTI has published survey maps, painstakingly marking each and every sewer, water line and drain surveyed so far. All the branch drains have been surveyed but new ones are being discovered. It has also documented 451 of the 539 low-income settlements in Karachi, and physical and economic proposals for upgrading. This has led to developing 60% of all natural drains through which most of Karachi’s sewage flows. In addition, 102 goths (small villages in the periphery under the city’s administration) have also been documented.

Their work bore fruit in 2004 when the City Government requested OPP-RTI to assist it in developing around 105 natural drainage channels all over Karachi. “Our success is that the Government has finally accepted OPP-RTI’s sewage disposal plan for Karachi”. OPPRTI suggested that the natural drains be used for disposal of sewage and rainwater and treatment plants be installed where these drains enter the Arabian Sea.

Further, OPP-RTI’s philosophy is well entrenched in the 2006 National Sanitation Policy. This includes component sharing model, build on what exists, mapping and documentation using local resources, refusing foreign loans and Government working in partnership with the people. The OPP-RTI has also influenced similar projects in 28 other cities and over a 100 villages in Punjab and Sindh, reaching more than two million people. Some elements of the programme have been adopted in Nepal, Sri Lanka and India.

“We’re neither contractors, nor delivery people, we are teachers, ourselves learning from situations,” says Rehman.

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