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Abdul Sattar Edhi: The Man Who Begged For A Better World

21/07/2016 12:04 PM IST | Updated 22/07/2016 8:52 AM IST
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Caren Firouz / Reuters

Most of us know that Gujarat was the land that played a role in nurturing two founding fathers, of two nations: Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. However, Gujarat was the birthplace of another great man: Abdul Sattar Edhi, the great Pakistani humanitarian who passed away on 8 July, 2016.

He too was a father of sorts, but not of a political ideology or a nation. He was a father to millions of people living in extreme poverty. He was a father to many unwanted children abandoned in garbage dumps. He was a father to runaway kids and destitute women. The rejects and cast-offs of society found shelter in the homes set up by him. At a time when states and institutions are struggling with issues such as inequality, hunger and poverty, Edhi stood as an institution in himself for the wretched of the world. His services to the people in his home country, Pakistan, and around the world have given countless people hope and new life.

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Edhi, a frail bearded man dressed in dark clothes, asking for charity, was sometimes mistaken as a beggar by the public when he started his work. Despite this, he managed to set up the biggest empire of charity work in Pakistan. It was a common sight in Karachi: this great philanthropist "begging" for charity in the streets and on the main roads. He begged not for himself but for the poor people he sought to uplift. He lived among them, worked among them and identified himself with them. He ate with them, he played with the kids, and spent his Eid and festivals with them. He was one of them.

His lifestyle was that of an ascetic. His office was not a vast business set-up designed to entertain generous donors – rather, it was a humble windowless dorm, not because he could not afford a more comfortable one but because he opted to live like the people he stood for. "You will find me among my people, my story is here, with them," he once said to filmmakers who wanted to document his life and work. Edhi was right, anyone could find him. People can find him even now, after his passing, hidden in the contentment of the poor, in the giggles of infants and in the smiles of the abandoned.

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I grew up watching a busy Edhi Centre right in front of my house in Lahore. What particularly intrigued me was a small colourful cradle perched at the entrance. He had arranged these cradles for abandoned babies and children. An inscription made his intent clear: "Do not kill the babies, put them in the cradle." These centres, which safeguard abandoned babies and runaways, are spread all over Pakistan – there are almost 330 of them. Every centre has an ambulance which is free of cost.

People can find him even now, after his passing, hidden in the contentment of the poor, in the giggles of infants and in the smiles of the abandoned.

The Edhi Foundation was all that to an individual that a state should be. Hospitals, orphanages, schools, graveyard services, morgues, free kitchens, missing persons' assistance, rehabilitation centres, marriage bureaus, refugee assistance, employment schemes and welfare centres --- the Edhi Foundation offered all of this, free of charge. Over the years, Edhi and his foundation has rescued 20,000 abandoned babies, provided food and shelter to more than 50,000 orphans, and trained 40,000 nurses to look after the poor and the needy.

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These services were for all humanity, irrespective of caste or creed. Some people say that even dacoits and burglars never touched any vehicle or building that had Edhi's name on it. He was revered, respected and idolized by almost everyone. However, in an unfortunate society which is fissured on sectarian and religious lines, Edhi could not escape the wrath of fanatics and extremists. They were outraged that he'd venture to the remotest villages of Tharparkar and poverty-stricken villages in Thar to help many Hindu families. His famous answer to all those fanatics who questioned his services to people of other religions was: "These ambulances are more Muslim(in spirit) than you are."

Edhi spent his life working for the poor for more than half a century. He chose a life partner who was equally passionate about alleviating the misery of the less fortunate: Bilqis Edhi, a professionally trained nurse, supported him and his work through and through, contributing equally to the foundation's activities.

The nation mourns the death of "the richest and the poorest man" in Pakistan who stood against inequality, corruption and status quo.

Living a life like Edhi's is utterly inconceivable to an ordinary mind. A person who was a hermit but who founded the biggest network of free services for the downtrodden, a person who was unassuming yet influenced the lives of millions, a person who was unarmed yet shook the status quo. Many paradoxes were combined and one Edhi was born. Such is this great philanthropist's legacy.

The nation mourns the death of "the richest and the poorest man" in Pakistan who stood against inequality, corruption and status quo. Edhi is a role model for individuals, institutions and states -- anyone who really wants to help the poor and work for the betterment of society need only follow in his footsteps. He exhibited the power of kindness, selflessness and devotion to the world and still stands as a beacon of light in this era of disparity and dispute.

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