It is almost impossible to think of a welfare system without state resources and intervention. But one man, Abdul Sattar Edhi, is single-handedly responsible for creating an unparalleled mini-welfare state system within the state of Pakistan.
In the early 1950s, a young Edhi started begging on the streets of Karachi to buy a battered old van to be used as an ambulance. In 2016, the non-profit Edhi Foundation had over 1800 ambulances stationed across Pakistan – all via public donation. Most Pakistanis will call an Edhi ambulance, rather than a private or state run service in case of an emergency. Edhi’s air ambulances were the first responders when an earthquake struck northern Pakistan in 2008. The reach of Edhi services during emergencies also extends to other parts of South Asia such as Nepal after the recent earthquake.
Over the years, Edhi expanded his work across many areas. His foundation runs homes for women, rehabilitation centers, workshops for skills based learning, dispensaries, soup kitchens, orphanages, welfare centers, missing persons services, refugees assistance, animal center, morgues and burial services including graveyards, child adoption services, and homes for mentally challenged across the country. Thousands of Pakistani children have Edhi and his wife Bilquis Edhi as parents on their official documentation. Edhi services are accessible and open to all but devoid of religious and governmental support in any monetary form.
In Pakistan, more people will trust the Edhi Foundation with their money than the state with their taxes. Donations come in different forms and from many economic strata of the Pakistani society. Many individuals who enter the job market will donate from few rupees to thousands from their first salaries as an initiation to economic and civic life – this pattern continues for many. It is not unusual for children to donate money to Edhi services out of their pocket monies or eidi (money given to children on Eid by their parents and relatives). Edhi single handedly inspired a culture of kindness, giving, volunteering, and civic mindedness in society often marred by economic or political plights.
The list of Edhi’s achievements and contributions can take pages to fill but here is a very small glimpse of the incredible man who has been called a saint. Edhi owned two pieces of clothes, never owned an apartment, never took salary from his foundation, did not take a day off from work for than 25 years, and died in the same pair of shoes that he bought twenty years ago. His grandchild was killed by a mentally challenged woman in one of his own Edhi homes for the sick and he could not find time to attend his daughter’s wedding. He was often chided by thereligious right who accused him of not being religious or spreading immorality by taking in abandoned children usually born out of wedlock.
Edhi passed away two weeks ago in Karachi due to organ failure. He requested to be buried in the same clothes he died in and in a graveyard that is run by the Edhi Foundation called Edhi Village. In 1998, author and activist Tehmina Durrani completed an official biography on Abdul Sattar Edhi called Mirror to the Blind. It was Edhi’s wish to have his organs donated after his death, but due to his poor health, only his corneas were used. Today, they have already been transplanted to two blind individuals giving them light for life. Durrani might have little predicted how literally true the book title would turn out to be. Edhi, undoubtedly, is the most revered person in Pakistan.
It is often customary to wish Rest in Peace for someone who has passed away. For Edhi, that may be unnecessary. He already does.