“Adhoori si zindagi hai meri
par udhaar par jeeta nahin
jeena seekh liya hai main nay
apni mushkilon say lar kar”
Such are the thoughts of a disabled individual. One among several, shunned by society, willing to work, willing to overcome his barriers and succeed in life. Only in need of an avenue, a helping hand. The Rickshaw Project is that helping hand.
On Tuesday, the 5th of May, two individuals from AIESEC in IBA, part of the World’s largest student run organization working to enable peace and fulfillment of humankinds potential, headed over to the office of NOWPDP and the Rickshaw Project. To give a little hindsight, the Rickshaw Project was started as a social initiative looking to invest in disabled individuals and work for their better futures by helping them earn a proper living. The project, started by Mr. Amin Andani, focuses on recruiting disabled individuals from Karachi and trains them to drive retro-fitted rickshaws as well as provides them with technical and mechanical training.
Mr. Andani, founder and head of The Rickshaw Project, is a recent graduate with a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) degree from the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST). He looks after all the operations of the project. Mr. Andani agreed to answer a set of questions for the two AIESEC members whose organization is currently in a partnership with The Rickshaw project. The interview proceeded as follows:
Q1. Give us some background behind the creation of The Rickshaw Project.
Ans. Normally, there is a lot of social stigma regarding people with disabilities. It is perceived that these individuals are not capable of doing work and that they’re a burden on society. We wanted to break that stereotype. We, founders and members of The Rickshaw Project, want to make sure that these disabled individuals are an equal part of society and that is exactly how they should be perceived. We want to change how people think and how the environment changes around them. We try to retrofit things other than rickshaws. So we’re trying to revamp the whole project. We have an RnD center where we consult disabled people with the things they need. Our efforts are at the moment focused on transport for disabled people.
Q2. What were the challenges you faced when starting the project?
Ans. One of the challenges we faced was getting people associated with our cause in the long term. Everyone wants to make donations and fund the project but we want people to associate themselves with our cause in the long term and that is a challenge. There isn’t consistent support for our organization. The total percentage of people with disabilities in Pakistan is 15% which is considerable. Another challenge we faced was getting licenses for our drivers. It was difficult since Pakistani law prohibits disabled people from getting a license. We also go to universities to try to acquaint people with our cause. Hence there are challenges which we try to overcome.
Q3. You have a MBA degree from SZABIST. Then why did you choose to pursue a path in the social sector?
Ans. The motivation is personal. My nephew is a wheelchair user. I hence know the kinds of challenges faced by people with disabilities. I’ve seen how bad the prospects for people like these are. And these prospects are thrice as bad for women. I have witnessed this at home, hence this social cause is close to my heart which made me pursue it.
Q4. What can you comment on the financial sustainability of The Rickshaw Project?
Our aim was to be financially sustainable even before the project started. Regardless of the efforts, it took us three years to reach the threshold we’re at now. The project has been supported in the past by several donors, corporations and individuals. The funding of the project is equally split between philanthropists and companies with both sets of parties wishing to fund the social cause. We do wish to turn the project into an even more financially sustainable model and hopefully will get better results a few years down the line.
Q5. Tell us about the people who drive your rickshaws. By what process are they recruited and given the opportunity to work?
Normally, we are recommended people with disabilities. We have employees working at our office who search for individuals and when we get applications, we add them to our list. Whenever we have an opening, we interview prospective drivers for our quota. What we primarily look for is passion. We can give them the rickshaw, and even the skills but not the passion required to work for the project. This passion, and interest has to come from them. I’m talking about drivers like Imran who ‘wow’ the audience when they’re shown to the world. Their passion is truly unmatched.
Q6. What is your happiest memory till now related to the project?
When I joined the project, I had a bit of a doubt in my mind. Will people be able to accept this? When I initially joined, I made a small flyer through a graphic designer. When I launched it on the Facebook page, it had 300 to 400 shares in two days, including endorsements by some known personalities. And through this one small poster, I immediately saw the scope and potential of this project. Immediately after that incident, we were covered by many newspapers and many media outlets for our launch.
Q7. Were there any sad memories which you also had to encounter during your experience with the project?
The saddest memory I can recall is a recent one. A week back we lost an amazing driver. His name was Siraj Bilal. He was incredibly hard working, an amazing speaker, and a huge motivation boost at the organization. He was an inspiration to us all and his passing away was an indeed sad moment.
When asked what he knew about AIESEC and its members, this is what Mr. Andani had to remark:
It is an international student run organization. One which exchange internees from all over the world to promote different cultures and peace. From the various AIESEC members I have met, all I can say is that they are very friendly people, very empowered and very professional in their work.
We asked Mr. Andani about whether AIESEC has been an asset to his project and its impact and this is what he had to remark:
AIESEC has been a huge boost. It has helped a lot in increasing the visibility of our project. Many of your interns have written beautiful pieces, including one intern, who published a piece about our project in an Australian newspaper. Hence this partnership has helped improved our perception and impact.
When asked about what message he would like to give to society, Mr. Andani replied:
Whenever you see a person with disabilities, try not to sympathize with them. Try to empathize instead. It is what we try to do in the rickshaw project. We try to transform the world’s approach from a sympathetic one to an empathetic one which is very important.
Indeed powerful words coming from a man very dedicated toward a pressing social cause in Pakistan. Upon the conclusion of the interview, the AIESEC members wished to collect the thoughts and experiences of one of the drivers at The Rickshaw Project. The well known driver Imran, who has been associated with AIESEC in the past, willingly agreed and proceeded to answering the questions asked.
Q1. Can you tell us about your life before The Rickshaw Project?
I have been working for the project for about three years. I was the first member of the project and have been working for it since the start.
I wasn’t able to educate myself. I was born in a family of people working in the plumbing profession, and I am a licensed plumber. I was able to work myself, and I was able to earn for myself and had a fairly good life. I saw other people like me, disabled, and saw how abject their lives were.
I worked with many NGOs and found that most of them were stuck in their brochures and had little practical work to offer to society. I used to work with retrofitting for disabled people even before the rickshaw project, and when I was called for an interview here, I realized that I could use my skills to help a lot more people instead of just the people in my own neighborhood. I saw that here, instead of giving the people fish, I could teach them how to fish. And today, I really cannot tell how many people I’ve helped by my retrofitting.
Q2. How do you feel about The Rickshaw Project and the cause its working for?
The rickshaw project isn’t a factory for rickshaws. It’s a factory for a change in perception.
I believe if god closes one door, he opens several others. I feel that we need to reach out and find those doors, and that would be my message for all disabled people. I want to be an inspiration to them. I want disabled people to see me, and to think that if I can work with my disability, so can they.
Q3. How do you like travelling around the city and meeting people?
I have covered a lot of areas as a driver. They are not only physical areas, but also mental ones. People have a very set image of disabled people. Through my efforts, I help at least half of my passengers in successfully changing their perception about disabled people.
Q4. Can you tell us about how people react to your disability?
Everyone who hires us for the first time, thinks he is taking a risk. And yet by the third time they have hired us, they feel safer than ever. People feel safer with us than with normal rickshaw drivers. All our drivers are exceptionally well trained. They know how to react to every situation, and I feel our organization values professionalism over everything else. I make sure that anyone who requests our services once, will want to do it again.
Q5. Can you recall your happiest memory with the project so far?
You must know Siraj. He passed away a little while ago. He was said to be unruly, impossible to change and a huge disappointment to his father. People would say no one could make him change, and become responsible. I accepted the challenge, took him under my wing, trained him, helped him live with his disability. Though he passed away, even taking his name fills me with pride, because when people speak of him people speak of him with respect.
Q6. What do you think about the AIESEC foreign interns you have interacted with?
The AIESEC interns have been very good people. I’ve driven them to every place in Karachi, and of course you know how bad things are in Karachi. Many of the interns felt so safe with our drivers, that at the time of their leaving, many of them gave us mementos and gifts. I felt so happy, knowing that I had helped change the perception of foreigners about disabled people.
Q7. Any wishes or motivations for the future?
I am a simple person, and all I want is to be a role model. My wife is also physically impaired. It is said that two disabled people cannot live a life together. And yet, anyone who comes visit our house can testify to the contrary. We work hard, and I want to prove to the world that no matter the disability, god always opens new doors and new channels for you to work on.
When asked to give a message to society, Mr. Imran chose to do so through a poem:
“Bani ke lakhu yaar sahi
Maza tou tub hai, jub bigri ko leke saath challo”
According to the verse, a person can live his life very happily and in a normal manner, but true joy and satisfaction comes when he is able to live life and is able to work despite his disability or problem.
Such are the aspirations of disabled individuals. Their motivations and passion for work, for being respected by society are unmatched and unparallel in every way. They are role models through which we can find the illumination and guidance to overcome our own hardships. All that is required is for these disabled people to find a helping hand, a spotlight which gives society the chance to see their potential and their true selves. Empathy is what they need to succeed. It is that same empathy that is provided to them by social organizations such as The Rickshaw Project and AIESEC. By working for the best, we bring out the best in us, and others.