You are free to pray…But please do it at home

Please stay home… Even if the government isn’t requiring you to. Doctors in Pakistan have demanded a “strict lockdown to contain rapid spread of COVID-19” but Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan after ‘conferring’ with the ‘ulema’ has chosen to go with the latter, justifying his decision by saying that he cannot use force in the matter. Here’s my interview on Al Jazeera live about this, April 22.

Imran Khan: Appeasement to what end?
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#PakistanFightsCorona: Lending a helping hand

What to do, who’s doing it, and how to do it

A poetic fundraising resistance to despair

Event invite / Asmer Asrar Safi

The current coronavirus pandemic, and lockdown that is essential to prevent even more destruction, increases urgency in countries like Pakistan to ensure the survival of daily wagers and their families. With lockdown the only way to #stopthespread of COVID-19, many organisations are working on the ground to provide rations to families and PPE to health workers.

One initiative aimed at supporting these efforts is a poetic resistance to despair: An online fundraising effort for COVID-19 relief, Pakistan, Sunday 19 April 2020 at 1 pm ET (10 pm Pakistan time). Join online via this Zoom invite. (

This is the first of a series initiated by the US Pakistan Students Coalition, including students at Harvard, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore, Yale and others. The Joy of Urdu is supporting this effort, that I am honoured to collaborate with.

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Remembering Mashal Khan at a time of despair, hope, and healing

Demonstration in Karachi for Mashal Khan. AFP file photo
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A conversation about coronavirus in USA and Pakistan

This afternoon I spoke to my hospitalist friend Dr Cyma Firdous while she was on a break. She told me her hospital in New Hampshire is preparing for a surge of coronavirus cases expected in a couple of weeks. They are feeling unprepared and under-equipped. If things are this bad in wealthy, developed USA, how bad will they get in Pakistan and other such countries? We decided to do a brief video conversation in Urdu and share it on social media to try and get across the urgency of the situation. Sharing here the gist of our discussion.

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Fragile Egos, Fragile States: COVID-19 Doesn’t Care

Two demonstrations involving Indians and Pakistanis in Massachusetts once again foregrounded the common issues that the people of the two countries, and elsewhere, face

Wrote this piece published in The Wire some days back – feels like forever now, given the fast pace with which ‘coronamadness’ seems to be taking over the world. Sharing it here anyway.

Boycott CAA, NRC, NPR, RSS, BJP, Modi, Hindutva.
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World Polio Day, Oct 24: ‘Any number more than zero is too much’

A slightly revised version of my article in The News on Sunday on Oct. 23, 2016, posted here with additional links and photos. The world watches as the last three polio endemic countries strive to relegate the crippling virus to history


Polio survivors Ramesh Ferris and Minda Dentler share their experiences – and dreams about a polio-free world. Photos: Beena Sarwar

“In 1955 Dr Jonas Salk invented the preventive vaccine. It is outrageous that 25 years later I contracted polio,” says author and global health advocate Ramesh Ferris.

Standing on his good leg, a crutch compensating for the paralysed one in braces, eyes gleaming behind black-rimmed glasses, Ferris passionately addresses the audience of about a hundred physicians, scientists and international diplomats. They include representatives from the world’s three remaining polio endemic countries — Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Continue reading

Save Nepal’s Edhi, Dr Govinda KC, on hunger strike for pro-poor medical reforms


Dr Govinda KC: fighting for pro-poor medical reforms

UPDATE: Sign the online petition

If South Asia has a viable public health icon after the passing of Edhi in Pakistan, this man is it,” says a Nepali friend. 

Dr. Govinda KC is a man who is considered a saint in Nepal –  a middle-class doctor who on his own expense offers medical help wherever there is a disaster: Haiti, the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan, Bangladesh floods. 

By all accounts an incredible human being, he is entering the third week of his hunger strike, a fast unto the death for reforms in the medical education sector. His demands: lower the cost of medical education and create a public health system that allows access of all to quality care, in the place of Nepal’s present highly privatised and centralised system.  Continue reading

Eradicating polio: one last push

jafarihamid20_db_photo_jpg_autocroppedMy oped for The News International, Pakistan, published March 29, 2016

Polio-free Pakistan: one last push

Beena Sarwar

“Not since the eradication of smallpox in 1980 has the world had a chance to wipe out an incurable, but preventable, human disease, “ says Dr Hamid Jafari, former director of the World Health Organization’s Global Polio Eradication Department. Continue reading

Three good causes: help save a life; contribute to free medical camps; donate-a-goat

17-yr old Allahdin from Mithi, Tharparkar in hospital in Karachi. Photo: Wahid Khairi

17-yr old Allahdin from Mithi, Tharparkar at hospital in Karachi. Photo: Wahid Khairi

Sharing three appeals for help here from people I trust,  for those who would like to get involved or contribute in some way to any of these worthwhile causes:

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‘The Orangi Pilot Project and Legacy of Architect Perween Rehman’ @ MIT

Arif Hasan: Architect with ethics
Arif Hasan speaking at the syposium: Architecture with ethics. Photo: Beena Sarwar.
Parveen Rehman, photo by Steve Inskeep, NPR
Perween Rehman, photo by Steve Inskeep, NPR

 An abbreviated version of my article on the symposium held at MIT to commemorate Perween Rehman and her legacy was published in The News on Sunday last weekend, titled Commitment personified. Below, the full text with additional links and photos:  

Audience members at the MIT symposium on OPP and Perween Rahman, included Miloon Kothari. Photo: Beena Sarwar.

Speakers at a symposium in the Boston area last week, on “The Orangi Pilot Project and Legacy of Architect Perween Rehmanpaid tribute to the late architect and OPP director, as “a woman, architect and social activist”. They also discussed parallels between the issues faced by the urban poor in and elsewhere. Hosted by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the symposium featured prominent academics from India, Pakistan and the United States.

The event, spearheaded by graduate students Fizzah Sajjad and Hala B. Malik from Lahore, had been in the planning soon after the murder of Perween Rehman in Karachi on March 13, 2013.Academics from India, Pakistan and the United States presented papers and participated in discussions. Prominent among them were Akbar Zaidi, Kamran Ali Asdar, Balakrishnan RajagopalJames Wescoat, Anita M. Weiss, Laura A. Ring, Anita Spirn (of the pioneering West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which has many parallels with OPP), and Miloon Kothari, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing who is currently at MIT.

Ironically, Perween herself had taken a deliberate decision to not attend such events, reflected the prominent architect Arif Hasan, Chairperson of the  Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and Urban Resource Centre (URC), whose keynote speech kicked off the day-and-a-half long event. Perween Rehman, who graduated in 1981 from the Dawood College of Engineering in Karachi, was among the first batch of students he had taught. The following year, fed up with doing projects for the rich, as she put it, she came to work with the legendary Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan at the Orangi Pilot Project that he had launched in 1980.

Orangi Pilot Project: Self help and advocacy
Orangi Pilot Project: Self help and advocacy. Photo: courtesy Arif Hasan.
Orangi Township, Karachi. Map: Courtesy OPP.

It was Agha Hasan Abidi of BCCI who had asked Dr Khan, a retired bureaucrat famous for his uplift work at Comilla (in former East Pakistan), to help the people settled in Orangi. Dr Khan said he would not work with any one ethnic group or to do any social work, but agreed to investigate the problems in Orangi. After “roaming around” as Arif Hasan puts it, and talking to the people for several months, Dr Khan became convinced that the area would never become developed unless the people organised themselves and raised the money needed. In 1981, he asked Arif Hasan to develop a sanitation model, and later a housing model. There were psychological, social and economic barriers to be crossed. And there was a need, Arif Hasan suggested to Dr Khan in a note, to hire a young person to head the project and grow with it. However, one after the other, the young men they hired barely lasted beyond a few hours to a week at the job. And one day, Perween serendipitously showed up at Arif Hasan’s office, fed up of doing meaningless projects. She wanted to do something that would actually help people. She had done her homework and asked her former teacher about the various options she had investigated. He suggested that she go meet Dr Khan. She did, and he hired her. Unlike the others before her, she stayed on, “very serious in those early days”.

Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan: the guru who showed the way
Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan: the guru who showed the way. File photo.

She learnt on the job, supervising the mapping and surveying of OPP, that students not much younger than herself carried out. This cost a fraction of the amount that an international agency had quoted, said Arif Hasan.

Rehman’s second major learning was to start a research institute. She “learnt by doing, observing and association”. In 1987, she was made director of the research and training institute, much to the resentment of the conservative lobby who considered her as a young “girl” – “but she stuck it out”. In time, she became close to various social organisations and activists, winning over many detractors who became her protectors and friends.

Her third major learning, said Arif Hasan, was through Khuda ki Basti, the housing project that the bureaucrat Tasneem Siddiqui started (see his interview in The News on Sunday on katchi abadis). To Perween Rehman’s credit goes the removal of the old complicated system of registering land and other legalities, and the establishment of a one-window operation open in the evenings that people could avail of.

She also initiated the OPP-RTI (Research and Training Institute), which manages projects like low-cost sanitation, secure housing support, education, water supply, and women’s savings, and training programmes. One of its greatest contributions has been mapping and documenting numerous settlements in Karachi.

Over 70 per cent of katchi abadis in Karachi are now regularised, thanks largely to the advocacy work of Perween Rehman and the OPP. Her greatest achievement, reflected Arif Hasan, was to make OPP “a people’s project”, and to “bring people closer together”. She refused to deal with the ‘big’ bureaucrats, preferring to focus on those working at that ground level. That in itself was a major shift in how advocacy was done. It led to changes in the laws, and changed perceptions towards informal settlements. “Laws are important”, as Arif Hasan put it, pointing out that it took 11 years to frame the Sindh Katchi Abadis Act, which in turn, became part of the Karachi Development Plan.

Rajagopalan Balakrishnan: universal parallels.
Panel discussion after Arif Hasan’s talk – Rajagopalan Balakrishnan: Universal parallels, anti-poor bias. Photo: Beena Sarwar

There is a strong anti-poor bias, not just in Karachi and Pakistan but all over South Asia, and indeed, the world, observed Balakrishnan Rajagopal, Associate Professor of Law and Development and founding Director of the Program on Human Rights and Justice at MIT.

Around the world, the poor are being pushed into smaller settlements, he said in his thought-provoking talk on various kinds of violence, including those that are structural and institutional, weighed against the poor. Transport is geared towards the much-touted vision of the ‘world class city’, rather than connecting the poor. Indeed, slogans like “world class” or “slum-free city” are “dangerous ideologies that sanction violence on the vulnerable at the policy level”. Re-locating people to make room for ‘development projects’ causes an increase in poverty levels as incomes decrease. Children pay a heavy price as their schooling is interrupted. Meanwhile, as literacy levels are rising, people are becoming more aware of their political rights.

Ironically, the more assertive they become, the more conflict is generated — the police tend to be heavy-handed when it comes to dealing with protests by the poor. Another common phenomenon, from Mexico and Brazil to South Asia, is the personal risk taken by those who work with the poor. The violence against defenders of equities, rights and the poor needs to be explicitly recognised, suggested Balakrishnan.

Over-commercialisation and commodification are giving rise to a certain kind of consumerism, and the consolidation of a trans-nationalist capitalist class. Exploitation of natural resources pushes rural dwellers to the cities, where they are forced into slums, making them vulnerable to disease and other issues related to urban poverty. Arif Hasan has suggested that architects and town planners develop a code of ethics and take oath like doctors do, to refuse projects that displace the poor or are environmentally or ecologically unfriendly.

Given the neo-liberal agenda that is being pushed globally, the suggestion is unlikely to receive a sympathetic hearing among his colleagues (“Arif Bhai, hum bazaar mein baiThey haiN,” as one of them put it). Still, it is certainly an idea worth pushing for.

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