Abdul Sattar Edhi: A philanthropist who shunned politics and led from the front

  • Imtiaz Ahmad, Hindustan Times, Islamabad
  • Updated: Jul 09, 2016 20:56 IST
Pakistani mourners gather during the funeral ceremony of renowned social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi in Karachi on Saturday (AFP)

The death of Abdul Sattar Edhi has robbed Pakistan of one its most loved personalities. This was a man who set up a dispensary in 1951 when he discovered how poor the state of healthcare was in Pakistan, following the death of his mother at a government-run hospital. At the time of his death, Edhi was running the largest social welfare organisation of its kind, not just in Pakistan, but possibly in South Asia. His ambulance service is arguably the largest in the world, especially in a country where government ambulances, save a few cities, are almost non-existent.

This is the story of a man who was known as “Maulana” but never used religion to either further his cause or collect donations. In fact, so particular was he about donations that he never took money from the government and rarely from any foreign entity. He would proudly proclaim that his entity was 100 per cent indigenous and he steered clear of all foreign-funded NGOs that wooed him for their own reasons.

Read: Pakistani philanthropist Abdul Sattar Edhi dies in Karachi

From humble beginnings in Bantwa, Gujrat, Abdul Sattar Edhi learnt his lessons on charity from his mother who would give him money to give to poor people and on days he forgot to do so, she would berate him. It was this desire for charity that turned him into a social worker. But his early life and austere upbringing made him very cost conscious. He would rarely spend money on himself or his family, and would engage in arguments with his wife when she spent on what he saw was luxuries, like taking the children out for an ice-cream.

His grey khaddar kurta pajama was his trademark. But sometimes it worked against him. In 1984, he was asked to leave an airport reception line waiting to receive former Indonesian President Suharto at Karachi Airport as the protocol staff said he was not properly attired. But, for others, his austere life meant that he spent all on his charity.

It was not only the rich Pakistanis that made donations to Edhi, but also the poor. When Edhi was raising money for the victims of the Bangladesh cyclone, it was Bengali-speaking beggars who gave the most. With Edhi, it was all about trust. Millions of rupees would flow into his charity daily.

The other quality that made Edhi unique was his zero discrimination policy. All were welcome, irrespective of caste or creed. Unlike many other charities in Pakistan, everyone was treated. And Edhi led from the front. During the tumultuous years of Karachi violence in the mid-80’s, it was Edhi who would lead his fleet of ambulances into strife-torn areas and rescue the wounded or pick up the dead.

Apart from ambulances, Edhi offered funeral services to all. His morgue continues to be the main facility in Karachi and other cities. At the Edhi centre, dead bodies are washed and buried if required. Otherwise they are transported to wherever the family wants to take them, free of cost; but only if the family cannot pay.

His was a unique accounting system whereby all accounts would be checked by him. “The money is given to me by people. I am responsible for it,” he would say.

Over the years, the range of services he offered grew. The most talked about was the cradle placed outside the 300-odd Edhi homes across the country. Anyone wanting to abandon their baby could do so here instead of killing it or throwing it in a dump as was usually the case with unwanted pregnancies. Edhi built orphanages, old peoples’ homes, homes for mentally challenged people and also an animal welfare centre.

His charity was not restricted to Pakistan. Over the years, he helped in the Sabira-Shatilla camps in Lebanon, in the Gujarat earthquake, in the earthquake in Cairo, and in different war zones across the world.

At the drop of a hat, his organisation would be able to put together a massive relief operation after a natural disaster or calamity in Pakistan. This was the level of expertise his team achieved. Today, there are a number of Edhi services for every phone user, just like emergency numbers. Most people rely on Edhi rather than the government machinery.

Edhi also had many close shaves with death. In one or two instances, he was saved from being killed because of his quick thinking. But the biggest scare came in 1994, when he had to flee to London after former ISI chief, General Hamid Gul, pushed Edhi to join a political campaign to save Pakistan by backing Imran Khan. When Edhi dithered, his foundation’s services were attacked. The message was that he would be used to unseat the then PM, Benazir Bhutto. But Edhi would have nothing to do with it. When he fled to London and explained what had happened, the pressure was withdrawn. But Edhi made it very clear that he would have nothing to do with politics in Pakistan. Possibly, that is why he was not stopped from doing his work for the next two decades.

With his death, the huge empire that Abdul Sattar Edhi has created will now be run by his son, Faisal, who was already managing it during Edhi’s illness over the past few years. But one wonders if Faisal would be able to fill the large vacuum created by the death of Abdul Sattar Edhi. The bigger challenge would now be to continue the legacy that had been put into place and to improve on it. In most instances in Pakistan, one sees that this usually does not happen. But for the sake of the millions who benefit from the Edhi Foundation’s work annually, the hope would be that Edhi’s name lives on for many years to come.

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