The deaths of the rich and powerful often elicit extravagant claims, but the nationwide remembrance and tributes for Abdul Sattar Edhi on his first death anniversary last week stands as testament to the enduring legacy of Pakistan’s greatest philanthropist and ascetic.
With the government facing persistent accusations of graft, one cannot help but see the stark contrast between Edhi’s compassion and unwavering dedication to the people against the mad rush of our politicians towards self-enrichment. In spite of the fantastical fortunes made by Pakistan’s political elite, the state has consistently failed to provide the most basic of services to the people. Instead, these essential services have been provided by the Edhi Foundation since 1957.
Born in Bantva, India to a business family, Edhi migrated to Karachi in his early twenties just after Partition. Appalled by the destitution he witnessed around him, he set up a makeshift pharmacy in a tent where he gave medicines away for free. Today, the Edhi Foundation represents Pakistan’s largest private welfare system with a network across the country. Its reach extends beyond Pakistan: in 2005, the Edhi Foundation contributed $100,000 in emergency relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
In a country where organisations often flounder in the absence of the president or CEO, the sustainable welfare model Edhi spearheaded continues to help Pakistan’s disenfranchised. The success of the Edhi’s Foundation attests not only to his humanity but also his pioneering leadership.
During the course of his social work, he met his wife Bilquis Bano, who like him has devoted her life to helping Pakistan’s deprived. Together the couple established a network of ambulances, homeless shelters, mobile dispensaries, adoption services and rehabilitation facilities spanning across the country. The Edhi ambulance service is the world’s largest private ambulance service in the world, run wholly by charity.
His foundation evolved into a multimillion dollar non-profit organisation, but Edhi always lived in a small dwelling behind his office with his wife, Bilquis, until he died
His foundation evolved into a multimillion dollar non-profit organisation, but Edhi always lived in a small dwelling behind his office with Bilquis until he died. He was always praised for his rigorous yet humble leadership. He owned just two pairs of clothes which he maintained was all that he needed. This sense of selflessness was instilled in him by his mother who would give her son two paisas each day explaining to him that one was for him and the other was for someone who needed it.
On a daily basis, he and his wife witnessed the horrors of life for Karachi’s poor. Friends and relatives say that this experience made him stoic and unwavering. For journalists, the Edhi Foundation remains an essential information source to corroborate facts and figures in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Invariably, Edhi and his team of intrepid social workers would enter the fray to assist the injured and collect the dead bodies for burial.
Writing for The Telegraph, renowned author and political editor Peter Oborne observed about Edhi, “In the course of my duties as a reporter, I have met presidents, prime ministers and reigning monarchs. Until meeting the Pakistani social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi, I had never met a saint. Within a few moments of shaking hands, I knew I was in the presence of moral and spiritual greatness.”
The 1st century Roman Emperor and sage Marcus Aurelius famously stated that the only wealth you keep forever is the wealth you give away. This is amply demonstrated through Edhi’s lasting legacy as the Edhi Foundation continues to run seamlessly across the country after his death. From his humble abode in Karachi, Abdul Sattar Edhi represented true leadership in Pakistan.
The writer is the founding editor of Blue Chip magazine. She tweets @MashaalGauhar
Published in Daily Times, July 16th , 2017.