January issue 2017

By | Interview | Profile | Published 7 years ago

Driving amid tightly packed buildings of a very congested Mithadar, one comes face to face with a portrait of Abdul Sattar Edhi at the end of a clean, bricked lane. It looms large, covering at least two floors of an apartment block. Directly opposite is the main Edhi Centre, with its continuous inflow and outflow of Edhi employees and volunteers. Faisal Edhi sits informally on a sofa signing cheques, while a young boy clings to his leg.

Winding up with last-minute instructions to his staff and sending the child home, he turns his attention to Newsline. He begins with the mild awkwardness of a man not yet fully at ease giving interviews. However, as the conversation progresses, his confidence, determination and sincerity to his father’s lifelong legacy shines through. He smiles every time he reminisces about his iconic parent whom he considered his closest friend.

Despite the multiple odds — and still growing — Faisal Edhi shares the same come-hell-or-high-water optimism his father had — there could not be a more worthy heir.

On December 14, on behalf of Edhi Foundation, Faisal played host to the first Edhi Awards in collaboration with Aman Foundation in which paramedic staff and ambulance drivers of both organisations were honoured and given cash prizes in recognition of their services. Edhi Foundation drivers, who died in the line of duty, were also recognised for their services to the nation and their families were given shields and certificates.



Did you have a close relationship with your father? What has life been like since his demise?

He did not talk much but we were close. I am the youngest of all my siblings. My relationship with Edhi Sahib was not that of a father and son. He was more of a close companion or a friend, although there was an age difference of about 50 years between us. The newspapers said my father was 88 when he died, which was incorrect. He was actually 92. He did not associate much with his relatives. Once I met a cousin of his, who is a well-known ophthalmologist. Prior to that I had not known about him.

I miss my closest companion, as does my mother — we feel his absence. She keeps herself busy with her activities at the Edhi Foundation and so does my elder sister. My second sister and brother are only partially involved with our work. I work from the main centre where it all began, attending to the problems of people who seek my help. They may need assistance with medicines, for example, or they may come looking for their missing relatives, or have a drug-addicted relative they want admitted at our drug rehabilitation centre for treatment — that’s a service we have been providing for over 30 years now.

Could you elaborate on a statement you made in July, and more recently too, that donations to the Edhi Foundation have declined considerably.

Donations have been falling continuously this entire year — since January, even when Edhi Sahib was alive. For example, last year during Ramzan we received donations worth Rs 18 crores. This year we received only Rs 14 crores. At this time, our closing (of accounts) is going on and there is a shortfall of 25 per cent in funds and contributions.

What, in your view, are the reasons for the decline in donations?

The biggest reason for the decline appears to be the expat Pakistanis, who are returning to Pakistan after losing their jobs abroad. They used to be our biggest supporters, especially those from the Middle East. We noticed a drop in the contributions since they have started to return home in large numbers.

So a significant amount of the donations you received were from expatriates?

Actually, these individuals used to send the donations to their families in Pakistan, who would then give them to us. You can’t send any money directly from the Middle East to charity organisations in Pakistan. But these hundreds of Pakistanis, who are returning home, used to send billions of rupees to Pakistan, of which we used to get a fraction. So we are very concerned. There’s an economic crisis brewing in the US and UK, which may impact us in the same way once again.

There were negative rumours being spread about the Edhi Foundation soon after your father’s demise. Is that perhaps another reason for the shortfall?

Some religious extremist groups have spread considerable negative propaganda about us, which has also had an impact — they tried to stop people giving us donations. This has been happening continuously since the beginning of 2016 — Edhi sahib was alive then. For the last three years, every Ramzan these extremist groups would spread the rumour that Edhi Sahib had died — it would even be broadcast on TV. And now that he has passed away, they say there is no longer any need to donate to his charity. The same thing happened this Ramzan as well.

How has it impacted the Edhi Foundation’s operations?

We are trying to continue all our operations through our reserve funds. But we can survive this way only for another year or two. Hopefully, our funds will grow again gradually. I don’t think our patrons have declined, but the amount they contribute has shrunk. I’m committed to continue with all our operations. We will meet the shortfall.

What about your regular patrons?

Our biggest source of funding is sadqa (voluntary offering of alms), which is given throughout the year; that has also fallen. Sadqa, donations and zakat constitute 95 per cent of our funding.

Before, and after Edhi Sahib’s passing away, there was a strong disinformation campaign by religious groups. Their propaganda machine is very well oiled. They have an entire network within the mosques — and that is where it all starts. I even know the names of the groups who circulate these rumours in all districts of Pakistan in order to prevent people from giving us donations. Sometimes they say we are kafirs, sometimes they call us Qadianis, sometimes Aga Khanis. Now they say since Edhi Sahib has passed away, there is no one to run the organisation, so it will wind up soon.

They also accuse us of failing to spend the zakat money according to the Shariah, and spending it on non-Muslims. Incidentally, the money we receive in the form of zakat is very low — less than 15 per cent of all the money we receive.

I don’t think all the negative propaganda has had any impact on our regular donors, but the amount they donate has certainly shrunk. Apart from the propaganda, another reason is the competition, mostly from religious groups but also from other charitable institutions. They carry huge advertisements on billboards and quarter-page ads in the newspapers.


What is stopping you from doing the same?

We don’t advertise because we don’t have an advertising budget, while these charities spend crores on advertisements. Moreover, money meant for charity cannot be spent on advertising. They are making newspapers their business partners. You cannot do business with zakat money — which is meant purely to help people, not for ads. They are spending millions on promotions, which is ethically wrong; even according to the Shariah it’s not right.

Does the Edhi Foundation have any MoUs with the government? Does it receive any funds from say, the Zakat Fund or the Poverty Alleviation Fund?

No, we don’t have any MoU with the government, nor do we take a single penny. We are registered under a Trust Act, in which we have declared the type of work we will do, such as operating an ambulance service, running shelter homes, help during emergencies, run an adoption centre and a rehabilitation centre, etc. All our activities are declared and are based on it. We don’t take any payment from the government of Pakistan.

Recently there were news reports that the Edhi Foundation was stopped from selling their old vans. Why? Do they belong to the Foundation or the government?

We are the largest volunteer ambulance service in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. And all the ambulances belong to the Edhi Foundation. However, some of them are very old — they have been in use for the last 17 to 18 years — and can’t be used anymore, so we wanted to dispose them off. When we import an ambulance from abroad, we do not have to pay any tax. However, the government has laid down the condition that if we decide to sell it, we cannot do so without first paying the tax on it.

What would be the value of a van, after 18 years of running? Say if the value is three lakhs, the government is taxing us 5 lakhs on it. So to sell it off, we have to dole out two lakhs from our own funds. They are now charging us at the rate it was at the time of purchase, and that too in dollars. Then the rate of the dollar was Rs. 50, and now it’s almost Rs. 105. If the tax was 2,000 dollars at that time — they are charging us the same on a 17-18 year old van, without taking into account the depreciation and at the current exchange rate of Rs.105 instead of Rs. 50.

We had 300 such vehicles and we recently sold between 50-60 after paying a crore in tax from our funds. The Customs returned 35 lakhs after we protested but they are not returning the sales tax they charged on them. We have submitted an application to them but there has been no response. The government has not shown any cooperation in this respect for the last 5-6 years.

According to your best estimate, how many people are beneficiaries of the Edhi Foundation? Has your organisation documented any figures?

Lakhs of people benefit from the ambulance service. Thousands are being cared for in our shelter homes every year. Hundreds of children are being looked after. Additionally, we reunite hundreds of lost children with their families every year. I’m quite sure all these would make for world records. We have maintained records since the 1990s. We have records of all the babies we have given for adoption — between 4,000-5,000 — and that must also be a world record but we have not got a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Can you tell us a little about the babies that are left in the cots outside Edhi centres?

We have three categories of babies. Those babies who are six months or a year old, are not given away for adoption, because the parents invariably return to take them back. Usually they leave them in the cots because of disputes between parents; for example a father may not be providing financial support to the mother to look after the child. But within five days or so, they come back to claim them. Second, are the newborns that we give for adoption to suitable families, and the third category is of those children who are abnormal — the `special’ children.

How many children are lodged in your shelter homes presently, and how many has the Edhi Foundation taken care of over the years?

We have taken care of over 5,000 orphans; of these 1500 are young children and the rest are those who have grown up here. You see that deaf-mute man who just walked in. He came to us as a child and has been with us ever since. Now he is married with children. As for those children whose parents we have not been able to trace, once a year we organise a bus that will take them to the towns and cities which they vaguely remember they may have come from, and through local organisations we try to find and reunite them with their parents.

Many organisations and companies announced donations to the Edhi Foundation soon after Edhi Sahib passed away. Has that helped in any way?

Those were mere announcements. Nobody ever came through. Except for Habib Bank Ltd., which recently gave us a cheque of two crore and thirty lakh rupees to purchase 10 ambulances. The State Bank had urged CEOs of other banks to make contributions to Edhi as part of their corporate social responsibility — but nobody delivered.

Businessmen, too, take advantage of the situation and make announcements only for garnering fame — it’s an old routine. We returned 5 crore rupees of Malik Riaz in 2014. This time I too, didn’t accept his money for the purchase of 10 ambulances. However, we sent him a letter of thanks for the offer.

Are you in any collaborations with NGOs?

Yes, we are. We have signed MoUs with organisations like Aman and the Operation Theatre Complex in Civil Hospital. We are providing the salaries of workers in Civil Hospital’s Emergency and Ultrasound units — and for the employees of the evening shifts at the Civil Hospital Operation Theatre Complex.

Has any international donor given you funds or offered any assistance?

We do not accept money from any donor agencies. The USAID wants to partner with us on many projects. The British also approached us two years ago when Edhi Sahib was alive. They offered to fund any of our projects. We refused on the grounds that we don’t take any funds from donor agencies, but we thanked them all the same. It has been our belief since the beginning that donations given by Pakistanis are enough to keep all our operations running. The only thing Edhi Sahib accepted from USAID was a helicopter. I think that this was the only time that USAID donated something to a country anywhere in the world, with no strings attached.

What projects do you have in place for the future? How do you see the Edhi Foundation growing?

We are working very closely with the expatriate Pakistani community, as well as local medical professionals, to establish a midwife, nursing and paramedical school in one of our facilities, which will be operational within one month. Through this facility, we will be training all our staff as well as people from outside our organisation, in nursing and midwifery.

We have a huge plan to train thousands of midwives — we will bring them from rural areas across Pakistan and send them back fully trained. We want to improve and revolutionise health in the rural sector because it is neglected. The main objective of the midwifery course is to reduce the infant and maternal mortality rates in Pakistan, which are among the highest in the world. Trainees will be taught techniques on the prevention and fighting of diseases that are widespread in rural areas. And family planning is a major component of this plan.

But isn’t the Government of Pakistan already working on this through the lady health workers programme?

Yes, but it is not getting the desired results. Hepatitis is spreading like wildfire. The country’s population is spinning out of control, despite the government spending billions and billions to control it. But they are simply not effective, because they are not reaching out to the rural segments — on an every-village basis. We have a complete course for midwifery training. We will adopt the complete nursing syllabus of the government but we will not register ourselves with the government. That is because the government would allot only a specific number of seats to a particular institution if we were to register with them. They will say they can only allocate seats for training 20 nurses at a particular hospital for three years. That is why we don’t want to register or want any certification from the government.

We will train all our people and we will issue them our own certificates. We will use the government’s syllabus and their examination system, but we will be taking the best teachers and instructors from the best nursing schools in Karachi. We are modernising our services in this way.

When did you realise the significance of your father’s work?

I have been working with my father since my childhood and accompanied him almost everywhere, even to sites of major incidents. One of them was the PAN AM hijacking at the Karachi airport (1986). I was nine years old and the Airport Security Force tried to stop my entry to the VIP gate because I was too young, but my father told them firmly that I was his son and that I would be accompanying him. I distinctly remember the visuals of that entire day as I sat with him watching that plane. But the next day I had to go back to school. The commando action took place two days later but I remember the tension and the way we were waiting in anticipation of either the commando action or the release of the hostages by the Palestinian hijackers.

Another incident was the Bohri Bazaar bomb blasts a year later, in 1987. I remember going to the Jinnah Hospital with my father where he and other Edhi volunteers were trying to help people identify their deceased loved ones. I remember lifting a sheet that covered one of the dead and found the victim’s face and leg in the same place — he had been totally ripped apart. I was so terrified that after that I didn’t raise any sheet again for a long time. Those memories remain, but this kind of work is now part of my routine.

The writer is working with the Newsline as Assistant Editor, she is a documentary filmmaker and activist.