Perween Rahman

The Orangi Pilot Project is an NGO that works in the squatter area of Orangi Town, Karachi, providing five basic programs to its residents: low cost sanitation, housing, health, education and credit for micro enterprise.

The Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) was launched in 1980 by Akhtar Hameed Khan–a development practitioner and advocate for participatory development. Its original aim was to build an affordable sanitation and sewage treatment system in the squatter community of Orangi Town at the outskirts of Karachi.

Khan recruited Perween Rahman, a Karachi-based architect, to become joint director in 1982. She became director of the Research and Training Institute (OPP-RTI) in 1988 when the OPP was split into four organizations.

CC image courtesy of Balazs Gardi on Wikipedia

The central problem that the Project sought to solve was that Orangi Town was an “unofficial” settlement and thus did not qualify for government aid. Ultimately, the OPP successfully demonstrated that a complex development project can be executed by mobilizing community buy-in.

In addition to sanitation, the OPP used innovative methods to grow and improve the quality of health, housing and microfinance services. While the OPP had a significant impact on Orangi Town as a result of its work in these industries, it was also increasingly faced with harassment from Karachi’s land mafia – organized crime groups that seize and develop plots of land to gain financial and political power.

To the land mafia, Orangi Town represented an opportunity for profit. Orangi Town’s status as an unofficial settlement meant that many of its residents did not formally own their homes. The land mafia took advantage of this to buy the land that the settlements were built on from the local government for a cheap price and then evict residents before clearing the land to make way for new construction projects.

CC image courtesy of Greg on Flickr

Rahman saw the injustice in this, and worked determinedly to regularize residents’ ownership over their own homes. Media-shy, Rahman was a committed defender of the rights of the nearly 1.5 million people who lived in Orangi Town. Her work in Orangi brought together members of the ethnically diverse groups in the area, reducing underlying communal tensions, and her affection for the community was clear to all who knew her. She described Orangi’s population as “a great example of self-help initiatives.” With OPP-RTI’s technical assistance, the Orangi community established their own modern underground sewer lines and built latrines in their homes. Under Rahman’s guidance, the community partnered with the local government on development issues, setting up 650 private schools and 700 medical clinics, while establishing 40,000 small enterprises.

She was a fervent compiler of the record of lands in Orangi Town, which were vanishing due to increasing demand from the thousands of people migrating internally from across Pakistan and from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to Karachi every year. Rahman documented and publicly stated her findings, noting that land-grabbers were subdividing the squatters’ land into plots and earning billions by their sale. She further engaged and taught Orangi’s youth to map and document their land.

Rahman’s process infuriated the land mafia. They let her know exactly how opposed they were to her activism and her public criticism of them. Rahman did not stop working. She would say, “There is no enemy, it is circumstances that make people do, what people do.” She chose to confront the threats with steadfast dedication to her principles.

On March 13, 2013, Rahman was shot and killed while driving home from the OPP’s office. Thousands in Karachi mourned her loss, in the Orangi community and the NGO sector, and many more mourned in the development sector around the world. Her murder has remained unsolved, but her memory hasn’t faded. The development sector in Pakistan has been honoring her by seeking out young development leaders who might emulate her commitment, while seeking greater security protections for the increasingly dangerous environment for development professionals.


Moving Forward

UN Habitat in 2016 named Orangi Town the world’s largest slum. The issues historically facing the settlement have been exacerbated by climate change, earthquake recovery, and corruption. The fight to gain services and provisions to the residents of the settlement continues, primarily through the efforts of OPP to move toward resilience, and the transformative impact of Rahman’s 28 years of service are still embedded in the streets of Orangi Town.

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