Whenever I see injustice, I can not stay silent: Arif Hasan

“Whenever I’ve seen injustice, against people, communities, or places of historical significance – it has deeply bothered me, ” says Arif Hasan, renowned architect, activist, researcher, and author.

“I have to do something, I cannot stay silent.”

Arif Hasan’s relentless efforts in documenting social transformation, proposing sensible urban development, and raising his voice for the disenfranchised – have earned him praise and recognition the world over, including a Hilal-e-Imtiaz from the Pakistani government, and the Prince Klaus award from the Netherlands.

While he’s worked all over Pakistan over the last five decades, at 75 years of age, he is the foremost authority on Karachi’s low-income settlements. His focus has been on improving housing conditions for the urban poor through interventions that create aesthetic liveable conditions. He has repeatedly lobbied with the government for implementing projects that are inclusive of lower-income communities, challenging the development paradigm that excludes them from the planning process.

Watch this video to learn how he came to be an activist and public figure; the role his mentor played in his life; his thoughts on the careers of the future; the most pressing problem Pakistan faces today; and what he regrets most.

Trained at the Oxford Polytechnic in the UK, it was after coming back to set up an independent practice in Karachi in 1967, that he started questioning the traditional role of an architect.

In 1973, he witnessed the eviction of the people he had grown up with, belonging to refugee communities – and the disinterest of the local administration. The incident, he says, was an important wake-up call that made him pay more attention to land issues.

He credits his time as a consultant in the 1970s for the Appropriate Technology Development Organization (ATDO), and its chairman at the time, Ghulam Kibria – for opening his eyes to the real problems people face.

Arif Hasan followed Ghulam Kibria in resigning from the ATDO in 1978 after General Zia ul Haq orchestrated a coup.

It was his mentor, Kibria, who introduced him to Akhtar Hameed Khan and the Orangi Pilot Project in 1981, which he has been associated with ever since – serving as the Chairperson of its Research and Training Institute till his resignation in 2018.

OPP has been a model of participatory development initiatives and has inspired similar projects in communities all over the country. Quite simple, the OPP involved local communities raising money, and using it for the betterment of their own living conditions. Enabled by technology and innovation, these communities were empowered to actively participate in their own development.

Having been associated with the OPP for over 35 years, Arif Hasan bears witness to the transformation that has taken place during that time, from Orangi being a “strictly” working class area dominated by men with a lack of literacy, to women equally participating in the economic process, thriving businesses and a young, more educated leadership.

One of the projects he is most proud of is the Thar Rural Development Project, where he conducted an in-depth socioeconomic survey, assessing the impact of social changes on the lives of Thari residents. While initiated with assistance from Save the Children Fund and UNICEF in 1987, it has evolved into a completely indigenous product, operated and manned by the local populace.

Apart from his consultancy practice, teaching, and publications, Arif Hasan can be found through his regular articles on urban issues, and as a guest speaker on any reputed discussion on social and urban development – with his prowess over language distinguishing him on both fronts.

Perhaps it is fitting that the following couplet from Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry, one that he claims to have had a great impact on his life, also serves as a testament to his work.

The way of the hermit, not fortune, is mine;
Sell not your soul! In a beggar’s rags shine.

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