Understanding and removing the barriers: Story of Nazir Ahmad Wattoo

We are passing through the worst economic and moral crisis in the history of Pakistan. There is a leadership vacuum and people don’t how to bring about a change in their lives. It is time to narrate the story of a community activist who started from scratch to improve the livelihoods of people in his community. This activist is Nazir Ahmad Wattoo. He succeeded where others failed. It is important to know why?

Nazir Ahmad Wattoo started his work for community development in Dhuddi Wala neighborhood of industrial City of Faisalabad in early 1990. Faisalabad is the largest textile manufacturing center of Punjab. Urban expansion in Faisalabad during late sixties and seventies gave birth to many low-income and poorly serviced urban settlements. Nazir Ahmad Wattoo lived in one of these settlements. He actively tried to bring about changes in this area as a young political worker. However two decades of political activism did not bring about any significant changes in the lives of people in his neighborhood. Nazir Wattoo’s passion and drive to change did not die out and he kept looking for ways to fulfill his dream.

In addition to organizing numerous receptions for higher ups in his area he kept attending conferences, seminars and workshops outside Faisalabad in search of the magic formula that could bring an end to the miseries of  people he lived with. During one of these ventures be came across Mr. Arif Hasan who invited him to visit Karachi to see Orangi Pilot Project’s (OPP) remarkable work in provision of sanitation to the poor in a settlement of 1 million people.

Nazir Wattoo went to Karachi with the hope that there he will be handed bags full of money to go back and distribute in his neighborhood. He was very disappointed when he was given a tour of Orangi Town instead. There he was shown lane after lane fitted with sewerage lines. All these lane dwellers had built there sewerage system with their own contribution. The people who lived there were extremely poor and had purchased their  plots from land grabbers on very low prices. This clearly showed that they had very limited purchasing power. Wattoo was not ready to believe that this could happen. If it happened in Orangi there was no way that it could happen in any other part of Pakistan. This was the first barrier. How could poor people pay for the basic services without government funds?

The second and most important issue was the common and “politically correct” belief that provision of sewerage and other basic services was responsibility of the government. Why should one absolve the government of its responsibility? Why should the people pay for these services out of their pocket. This was the second barrier. Even if people agreed to lay sewerage lines in their neighborhood on self help basis, they did not have the technical know- how to undertake this task. They did not know how to drawn an accurate could map, conduct level survey, dig and build man holes, supervise the work of masons and connect sewerage line with the toilet and trunk line carrying sewerage to the disposal station. This lack of technical knowledge was the third barrier.

Last and most important point was lack of consensus among community members to hand over their contribution to some one who would use their money judiciously. They were not ready to trust any outsider to keep and spend this money. In the presence of these barriers it seemed almost impossible to mobilize people to initiate development work in their area with their own resources. First and foremost challenge for Wattoo was to understand these barriers and determine how these barriers could be removed. Wattoo raised these issues with the architect of Orangi Pilot Project Dr. Akhter Hamid Khan to clarify his own understanding.

Dr Akhtar Hamid Khan told Wattoo that in providing sanitation, like many other basic needs, poverty is not a barrier. First of all we should distinguish between the poor and the destitute. Poor people have the capacity to pay for most of the services they need. The real barrier is not the lack of purchasing power of the poor. The real barrier is expensive solution designed by the professionals who does not understand the economic and social condition of the poor. Technical solution based on the purchasing capacity of the low income people can be designed. Such solutions can be financed by the people themselves. One also needs to understand that poor have to pay for not having the basic services. This includes cost of treatment of illness and loss of work days due to poor health. If the cost of not having sanitation facility is compared with the cost of having sanitation facility, the latter will turn out to be much less expensive than the former.            This again proves that self- financing sanitation facilities is within the reach of poor. The barrier in this case is not poverty but lack of knowledge of the social organizer who cannot make a case for self financed sanitation due to insufficient knowledge.

The third and most important point to be understood is lack of trust between poor residents and outside development agencies. Even if an outside agency has a low-cost model and data to make the case for self financed sanitation people will not give money to any development agency due to lack of trust in their competence and integrity. This trust is built over a long period of time. However when a self help initiative is started this barrier can be overcome by letting people collect, use and keep track of then own money themselves. This approach can help development organization cross the economic barrier cursed by poverty.

Technical barrier: Inappropriate technical design

Nazir Wattoo’s next question was how people without any technical knowledge could build sewerage system in their neighborhood. Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan told him that there are a few technical tasks needed to build a sewerage system at community level. Mapping, level, survey, preparing cost estimates for laying sewerage lines, constructing man holes and connecting them to sewerage lines. All these tasks can be performed by local youth, high school graduates, masons and unskilled construction workers with little training. This training will ensure low cost of performing these tasks. Good quality of workmanship will be possible due to direct interest of community members in establishing their own service delivery system and supervision, operation and maintenance of sanitation services by local residents.

Self work by local communities eliminates the need for contractors and middlemen which further reduces the cost. As people purchase supply materials themselves they bring down the material cost through bargaining in the market. In low income areas technical specification of the pipes, manholes and connecting lines are also changed. This leads to demystification of technology, development of socially appropriate technical design, enhanced technical capacity of local communities and removal of technical barrier.

Social barrier: lack of trust

Even if people have the economic and technical capacity to undertake a sanitation project it might not materialize due to low level of trust between the people. They are not organized. The do not work together as a team. They are not ready to trust any individual with their money. This social barrier blocks the progress of any self help programme. However this does not mean that people could not be mobilized to work together and contribute their resources for improvement of services in their area.

Trust with people can be strengthened by showing them things on ground; by undertaking and completing projects with the help of early adopters who could influence people by personal success. Dr. Khan told Wattoo to perform two tasks in his target area; identify early adopters who shared his vision and who were ready to support him in his mobilization work and conduct community dialogue with the help of early adopters. However Wattoo had to remember that if people did not immediately join hands with him it did not mean that they were rejecting him. It only meant that there was anarchy. People were not convinced that their dreams could come true. Under these circumstances Wattoo had better wait until he achieved his first success. Once people in his target area had laid the first sewerage line on self help basis things will change. People will see the benefit of improved sanitation.  Ironically people who are not risk takers do not want to stay behind once they see risk takers succeed. This tendency of not willing to stay behind will create a snow ball effect. In some cases, however, at this point local politicians enter the scene and start making promises of free sanitation to the people. This promise is never fulfilled but it comes as a big setback and delays the progress of work. Community activists should be prepared for this jolt. One should remember that in social work patience always pays off.

Interventions by politicians reinforce community’s psychological barriers that government is responsible for everything. In low income areas process of change does not start as long as people pin their hopes in the government. Communities can use different means to get basic services from the government; by activating government department to deliver services; by forging partnership with government agencies or taking the responsibility to develop service delivery system on self help basis. In each of these cases communities need to understand the factual situation, organize themselves to create leverage in negotiating with the government and actively engage in changing the situation. As long as people do not decide to take initiative themselves, things cannot change. Without crossing this barrier people cannot move forward. Take for example the case of sanitation. Any low income community which does not have sanitation facilities has two option available: pressurize the government to lay sewerage lines or take responsibility for internal development  (installing flush toilet and laying sewerage lines in the lane) and ask the government to lay the trunks lines, develop disposal system. In the first case government cannot deliver because specifications, procedures and contracting practices of the government make sewerage system so experience that only people living in high income localities can offer to pay for these services. Taking sole responsibility for sewerage services in also not possible because of limited financial means of low income  communities. Public-Private partnership is the only viable option for low income people. Public- Private partnership can only he built if communities organize themselves, collect necessary information and data on the financial capacity of the residents and then negotiate with local government institutions on the terms of partnership. If commits do not move nothing will happen.

Crossing these barriers is part of community development work. However identifying and crossing the barriers is done through research and extension work in the community. It consists of social and technical research. Once Nazir Wattoo understood these concepts he was asked to jump in the water.

  5 comments for “Understanding and removing the barriers: Story of Nazir Ahmad Wattoo

  1. qaisar.abbas@unt.edu'
    Qaisar Abbas
    January 14, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Nice article.

    • aminravy@gmail.com'
      January 15, 2011 at 4:58 am

      The story of Nazir Wattoo is ray of hope for community activists

  2. sewpart@gmail.com'
    January 15, 2011 at 5:39 am

    Long Live my respected Watto Gee

    With love in punjabi thrills ( Bhangra)

    Really a great man

  3. wascofsd@gmail.com'
    January 15, 2011 at 9:04 am

    I appreciate efforts of Fayyaz Baqir Sahib who points out the perils and wisdom for activists which can change the mind set of communities

  4. vaqas.lodhi@gmail.com'
    Waqas Lodhi
    May 16, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    It is a worth reading article by Mr. Fayyaz Baqir for people working in social sector.

Comments are closed.