Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The Presidential Pride of Performance Award was conferred on Safdar Habib, Syeda Saira Sultana, Anees Rabiya Zubairi, Mussarat Misbah, Sobho alias Sobhraj, Muhammad Ibrahim Joyo, Fehmida Riyyaz, Sultan Ahmed, Sahabzada Muhammad Shahid Khan Afridi and Satesh Chandara Aanand. Tamgha-e-Imtiaz was bestowed on Haji Masood Parekh, Shahina Puri, Akbar Khan, Ustad Nazir Khan, Dr Qasim Bhugio, Sabir Zafar, Irshad Qamar, Waqar Azeem, Nadeem Akhtar, Arif Blagamwala, Masood Naqi, Seema Mughal, Maqsood Ismail, Gulzar Ferooz and Dr. Sono Khangrani.
Dr Sono Khangharani battled discrimination, hunger, hardship and grinding poverty to achieve his ambition. Then he gave it all up to go back to his roots and help his community
“I grew up in Thar. Except for one image, all my childhood images were made up of recurring droughts, malnutrition, misery, lack of education and health care and sheer hard labour for mere survival. My dejection led me to believe that all our efforts are in vain and whatever we do is merely a drop in the ocean.
“However, the only image that was different came to my rescue. It was of a boy and a girl, undernourished and barefoot, playing joyously in the sand. They were trying to build small houses with pebbles, sand and stones. They failed again and again but they kept trying. I remember the two kids as they were my neighbours. They have grown up but have not given up their struggle,” says Dr Sono Khangharani (known to everyone as Dr Sono).
Like his neighbours, he has also not given up his struggle and is determined to help improve the lives of the rural poor by building teams and social networks that connect them. His conviction comes from his experience of growing up as an impoverished child in Sindh’s Thar Desert which is amongst the poorest regions of Pakistan where over 80 per cent of the people live in chounras (mud/clay huts) without electricity and running water. They obtain water from a well usually shared by the community and the literacy rate is barely 15 per cent here.
Dr Sono believes in the power of social mobilisation; that once the rural poor are organised, important changes can come about in Pakistan. He believes that talent and potential must be harnessed through education, training, and diversification of skills.
Sono Khangharani was six years old in 1960 when he started attending school with his brother in a chounra near Islamkot. As a child, he faced many hardships including discrimination as a Dalit, the lowest caste among Hindus known as the ‘untouchables’. “I had to work extra hard to prove myself because of the caste and class I was coming from,” says Dr Sono. “Poverty is disturbing because it deprives you of choices. You don’t have the freedom to fulfil your dreams” he adds.
Dr Sono passed his Matric exams in the first division, and he knew he wanted to continue his studies. Unfortunately, the drought in 1974 brought difficult times for his family. His parents could not afford to send him to university; they suggested that he apply for government service or work in a factory.
However, he had made up his mind to study and saved money working as a labourer in a cotton factory and in January 1975, he went to the Tandojam Agricultural College near Hyderabad to talk to the principal. Admissions were closed at that time but Dr Sono was determined. He explained his position to the principal who agreed to admit him as a student. His natural charm and ability to convince continue to play an important role in his career as well.
Dr Sono studied agriculture and veterinary sciences and supported himself through scholarships from the university, by giving tuitions to primary students, and by working in a factory. In November 1981, he passed his exams and was soon accepted at a teaching position at Tandojam University.
“I had to work extra hard to prove myself because of the caste and class I was coming from. Poverty is disturbing because it deprives you of choices. You don’t have the freedom to fulfil your dreams.”
Although he taught as a lecturer here for several years, university life did not seem to be his calling. He felt discriminated against as he saw his colleagues getting higher increments while he was passed over despite all his hard work and efforts. He left the University in 1987 to work in the corporate sector but soon realised that he did not belong there either.
In 1993 Dr. Sono landed a job in the National Rural Support Programme (NRSP), in Islamabad, which proved to be the turning point in his career and his life. He became aware of the nature and extent of rural poverty in Pakistan and also discovered his passion to work for the welfare of deprived communities. “I travelled to Kashmir, NWFP, Punjab, Sindh and other places and saw a different kind of world working with the poor. There was a lot of potential to harness and I saw how my contribution could make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged section of the population,” he adds.
During this period Dr Sono met some illustrious men whom he considers his mentors: Shoaib Sultan Khan, Chairperson of NRSP and the late Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan, famous for Karachi’s Orangi Pilot Project. “These were principled men, consistent in their ideals and committed to solving the issues of the poor. They believed in the power of collective action and developing the potential of the poor,” he elaborates.
After meeting these great leaders, any regrets he had about leaving the government job vanished. Inspired by their ideals, he became clear about his own mission. Dr Sono says that he feels their support to this day.
Within three years of working at NRSP, Dr Sono was contacted by Save the Children Fund (UK) which was running Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP) at that time. The organisation was going through a process of transformation from a foreign-run entity to a local NGO run by the people of Thar.
“I thought this would be a good opportunity to give back to my own community and set an example and it would be a new beginning of my future career,” says Dr Sono. He was finally selected but offered a lower salary than he was getting at NRSP and the position was in Tharparkar. When he discussed the position with his wife, she agreed to support him but on the condition that the family would stay in Hyderabad.
Dr Sono felt that it would allow him greater autonomy and independence to think creatively; he could transform the organisation and be recognised for it. The most challenging aspect was moving back to Tharparkar, he recalls. “There was caste discrimination, hunger and disasters such as droughts and floods,” he adds.
Among Dr Sono’s major accomplishments in his career was setting up a new legal framework for TRDP. He created systems and capacities to make it function; he also built a strong team and a donor base. Although this was an 18-month position, he was asked to stay on. “The community (of Thar) also wanted me to stay. As a result twelve years later I am still here,” he says cheerfully.
Dr Sono faced a big challenge in 1999, when there was a major drought in the region. There were acute food shortages. People were forced to mortgage land and livestock for foodstuff. Lack of fodder also led to diseased and dying livestock, precious assets of the people in Thar.
When this scribe asked Dr Sono how he ironed out this challenge, he said that his memories of growing up with the poor had a lot to do with it. His family lost over 80 goats during the course of a decade; they died during droughts or were sold at throwaway prices. He also lost his elder brother and two of his aunts to snakebites.
“These memories of my family’s vulnerabilities forced my imagination to work through disasters and mobilise people and resources,” he explains. With the help of his partners, he was able to raise money in a short period of time and expand his services to help people in other villages and different parts of the arid zones.
It is this network of people and friends that Dr Sono values the most. He travels a lot — to Sukkur, Karachi, Islamabad, India, US, UK, Switzerland — to meet with partners and donors, to attend board meetings and seminars on human rights. He is a member of the International Dalit Solidarity Network against caste discrimination and attends UN Human Rights Council sessions every year on food security, environment, and poverty alleviation. And this is what he is doing in his capacity in Thar. He is creating a forum for discussion by connecting people with each other and with other resources so they can develop their potential and improve their lives.
In his current position, Dr Sono has been able to implement his ideas into reality. He cites the growth of institutions in remote parts of the desert as one of his major accomplishments. Social mobilisation is the backbone of his NGO. Villagers are organised into small groups known as Para Development Committees (PDC), a group of 15-20 men, women or children who come together to discuss common issues. They also work toward a pool of collective savings used for internal lending, especially during emergencies. Leaders take part in managerial and technical training.
Villagers learn through teaching and training programmes in various areas. Just ten years ago, it was unheard of for a woman to visit a neighbouring village. Nowadays women in Thar are going to Karachi and Islamabad for national conferences and training sessions.
Some recent initiatives to train people and help diversify their skills include livestock management, development of cooperatives, linking women who are doing embroidery to the market, drip irrigation, and the Urban Micro Credit Programme for women.
As several PDCs start within a village, they begin to form larger organisations that can work at the village level, helping to plan water supply schemes, for instance, and digging wells. They can also approach the government to build roads and high schools. The clustering of community and village organisations has led to the formation of Local Support Organisations (LSOs) that can link to local government structures at the union council.
Dr Sono is encouraging and assisting LSOs to register as citizen community boards that will allow them to participate and benefit from the government plans. In this way, he is contributing his bit in improving the lives of the marginalised communities in one of the most deprived places of the country.