When Shoaib Sultan Khan journeys to Andhra Pradesh later this month, he will reconnect with thousands of people who remember him as the Pakistani who brought change to their lives.
It was thanks to Mr. Khan, now 82 and better known as SSK, that the women of three districts in the southern Indian State mobilised their poor rural communities into a programme that later became the basis for the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM).
A legend in the field of rural development in South Asia, SSK is best known for his work in Gilgit Baltistan in the Northern Areas, and at Daudzai, near Peshawar.
That’s where he organised far flung rural communities, an experience he took to India as adviser to the UNDP’s South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme in the early 1990s.
A little known side to India-Pakistan relations, this development saga has joined the two countries with experiences in rural development over the last two decades even while their governments and militaries have been at loggerheads.
How Andhra Pradesh and Pakistan shared and learnt from each other’s experiences is a window-opener to the possibilities that exist for cooperation to remove the poverty gripping both countries, if only they could normalise relations.
Khan was on the Independent South Asia Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA) whose report was adopted by Saarc in 1993. The seminal contribution of this report was that social mobilisation would be the basis of poverty alleviation.
Projects in Gilgit
SSK had already tested this with great success in Gilgit, where the model was launched in 1982 under the aegis of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme.
The programme gave each village a one-time grant for a project. The villagers had to form a community organisation to choose the project, and plan, build and maintain it.
Khan and his team monitored the projects, which included irrigation channels or roads linking the village to the main road, and they would provide support with equipment, supplies, and expertise.
The programme also taught villagers new skills, and encouraged the people of the area to assert themselves and participate in collective initiatives of their own.
Based on this model, the UNDP decided to implement a pilot project in each Saarc country. When SSK came to India in 1994 as part of the UNDP project, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao asked him to test the project in Andhra Pradesh, where it took off in three districts — Kurnool, Anantapur and Mehboobnagar in 20 mandals from 1994.
Khan is so well known for his work in the State that it was in Hyderabad that a biography of him published this year was released with much fanfare, by Chief Minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, earlier this year.
In Rae Bareli
He has another admirer in India. On the walls of his room musty with memories, along with pictures of his late wife and daughter, there is one of him speaking at Jais in Rae Bareli. And a familiar face is turned towards him, full of interest.
When Rahul Gandhi invited him to start a programme for women in 2008, Khan was excited. “I don’t know how he came to know about me, maybe it was from the Andhra women,” he says modestly. “I am very impressed by this young man who has his heart in the right place to do something for the poor.”
The A.P. programme
Unlike in Pakistan, the Andhra Pradesh programme went a step further — women led it and formed self help groups (SHG). This was inspiring for the Pakistan communities who were at first amazed but decided to try it out in their own country. Both sides shared and learnt from each other’s models of village level organisations.
At the end of the U.N pilot, on SSK’s suggestion, Mr. Chandrababu Naidu, then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, agreed to continue it.
The Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) was formed in 2000, a precursor to NRLM. The Andhra Pradesh programme now has the involvement of 11 million rural women. Some of them remember the Pakistani who changed their lives with affection.
“The women were the most impressive and Mr. Chandrababu Naidu brought them to his cabinet meeting. The World Bank later was willing to put $150 million for scaling up the programme to six districts after its vice-president said she had seen the UNDP miracle,” Khan recalls.
On his forthcoming visit to India, he is looking forward to meeting two bureaucrats, K Raju, who worked with him on the UNDP project from 1996-2000, and Vijay Kumar, who took charge of its successor SERP, and is now mission director, NRLM. He will also visit Bihar where NRLM is said to be making great strides.
“Shoaib Sultan Khan has so much conviction about the abilities of the poor,” Mr. Kumar says. SERP drew its structures from the Pakistan model with which the Andhra pilot had an intense engagement.
“We used to look forward to Khan’s visits and going to the field with him,” says Mr. Kumar who has visited Peshawar and interacted with rural women there.
SSK now heads the board of two not-for-profit joint stock companies in Pakistan, but for those who are deeply connected with him, he is a miracle worker. Sadly, in his own country his work in the Northern Areas has not been scaled up nationally.
Khan’s journey began in 1958 as assistant commissioner in Comilla district in then East Pakistan. Later as director of the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development at Peshawar he launched the historic Daudzai project in 1972 as part of the Integrated Rural Development Programme. It became a milestone in Pakistan’s participatory development efforts.
“Had the government agreed to take it to all the Frontier Provinces and if it had succeeded, there would be no Taliban today,” he rues.