HIGHLIGHTS

  • As Director of the Comilla Academy for Rural Development, a government training institute for rural development, he began a pilot experiment to test solutions to farmers’ problems identified by careful research.
  • He employed the cooperative approach using three main principles of group participation in all activities, injection of new ideas through fellow farmers, and enforced savings. In three years more than 130 primary village Societies with some 5,000 members were organized, increasing in number until they could be federated into a Central Cooperative Association. This federation provided banking and credit facilities, machinery service and repair, and training pertinent to the needs of the villages.
  • The Academy’s training of village, town and sub-district leaders in Basic Democracy made possible local management of substantial public works—drainage channels, roads and embankments. Training also eventually facilitated the transition from subsistence to modern commercial farming.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his inspiring personal commitment of experience, erudition and energy to scientific testing and application of a viable pattern for rural reform among his people.”

 CITATION

In Comilla Thana, or sub-district, lying along the eastern border of the vast alluvial plain that comprises most of East Pakistan, the highest hope of most villagers was that their lot would not worsen. The annual cycle was flood, followed by sporadic cyclones, tornadoes and hailstorms and then drought. Loss of the spring rice crop and severe damage to the autumn crop were common. In less than a century, population growth had decreased the average family holding from five to less than two acres, usually in separated fragments.

Deeply indebted, most farmers owed one half of every crop to moneylenders. The society was bound by feudal tradition—a man owning as little as one acre spurned manual labor. Most village women were restricted to their home compounds in purdah. Each year the great silt-laden Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers enriched the soil, but the people grew poorer. Living on scattered hillocks in some 400 villages, one kinship group was usually separated from another in the same village during the flood season. Afterwards lack of roads and distrust of neighbors in the keen competition for land discouraged looking outward. Four-fifths of the villagers were illiterate. Isolation and ignorance led to withdrawal, each group thinking its hardships were distinctive and beyond hope of resolution.

Bringing change to this society was the challenge AKHTER HAMEED KHAN accepted in becoming Director of the Comilla Academy for Rural Development. It was instituted by the Government of Pakistan in 1956 to train government and semigovernmental personnel at all levels concerned with rural development.

His own life had been a preparation for the Comilla experiment. An outstanding student and for a time a member of the elite Indian Civil Service, he had rejected high position to become first a simple farmer and then a locksmith to understand better how to live usefully. This intimate association with “the uncounted man” led Director KHAN to stake his reputation on proving that the village peasant could rise to lead himself.

To make teaching at Comilla Academy realistic and practical, began a pilot experiment in nearby villages to test solutions to problems identified by careful research in rural areas. Early in 1960 the government gave the Academy permission to use Comilla Kotwali Thana as a laboratory for rural development. Ford Foundation grants helped finance the Academy and the Pilot Experiment. Subsequently, the project was included in the government’s Five-Year Plan.

Director KHAN chose the cooperative approach based on individual freedom and personal initiative. A few good farmers were trained briefly and sent back to encourage villagers in their areas to organize Societies. Three main principles were insistence upon group participation in all activities, injection of new ideas through fellow farmers chosen by the group, and enforced savings.

In three years more than 130 primary village Societies with some 5,000 members have been organized and the number is increasing as new groups form voluntarily. All Societies have been federated in a Central Cooperative Association. It provides banking and credit facilities, machinery service and repair, and training pertinent to the needs of the villages. Organizers, model farmers and other chosen leaders, upon whom the transition from subsistence to modern commercial farming largely depends, come weekly on separate days to the Association. Given instruction in management and planning, improved agricultural methods and keeping accounts, they return to share new knowledge with villagers in weekly meetings of the Societies.

The first agricultural machines used in Comilla Thana were pumps for dry season irrigation and tractors introduced cooperatively by the Academy through the Societies. All are operated by village “drivers” trained by the Association. As debts are paid off and savings accumulate, farmers are beginning to invest in tubewells, dairy cows and other farm animals to further increase their incomes.

Academy training of village, town and sub-district leaders in Basic Democracy made possible local management of substantial public works. During the 1962 slack season distressed farmers and landless laborers from 195 villages cleared 35 miles of choked drainage channels. They rebuilt and constructed over 14 miles of roads and embankments. The Basic Democrats employed and supervised the workers from their villages. Direct payment to workers, one-half in wheat flour and the remainder in cash, demonstrated that foreign aid can relate directly to the village and benefit the great bulk of the population.

Education for children and adults and active programs for women and on health are the new concerns of the Academy. Again, the approach is not telling villagers what to do but enlisting their initiative, painful as the process sometimes proves.

Though encouraged by indications of an initial breakthrough in bringing new attitudes and skills to the rural society, Director KHAN would have preferred a longer testing period before applying the Comilla formula elsewhere. At the government’s urging, however, training in village cooperation and local government is now being extended to three additional thanas. He insisted that each thana program be centered around an educational institution, suggesting revitalized Village Agricultural and Industrial Development Institutes. Personnel for these three institutes, which will serve as three new Thana Training Centers, and all other aspects of the expanded program now are training at Comilla.

In electing AKHTER HAMEED KHAN to receive the 1963 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his inspiring personal commitment of experience, erudition and energy to scientific testing and application of a viable pattern for rural reform among his people.

 RESPONSE

I am humbly and deeply grateful to you for selecting me as the 1963 award for Government Service. It is indeed a signal honor for me to be associated with the name and tradition of the late Ramon Magsaysay who combined in himself the qualities of statesman and administrator. It is a combination which is rare but most needed in the newly liberated countries, much troubled as they are by conflict and alienation between the common people and their rulers. A tragic fate removed this great leader too soon and we lost a bright example of what could be accomplished by imaginative and sincere government.

The established government is all important in ex-colonial countries. Power and talent is concentrated there, and development depends so largely upon administration. I have arrived at this conclusion not simply by being an official. On the contrary, as a young man, after six years in the Indian Civil Service, feeling a strong antipathy I disassociated myself from bureaucracy. Renouncing official responsibility, I spent many happy years as a worker and teacher. But as I grew older I realized that government is the foundation of common welfare. Therefore, in 1958 I returned to serve at the Academy for Rural Development in Comilla.

Here for the last four years we have addressed ourselves to the study of two fundamental problems; how can the village economy be modernized, and what should be the new pattern of rural administration. In the small, but typical, 100 square mile area of Comilla Thana, we are trying to discover the nature of reorganization that must take place in the village, and the shape of institutions which can inspire and support a social and economic reformation. Simultaneously we are trying to evolve a system of rural administration based on partnership between the people’s representatives and the departmental officers—a system which could serve as a strong instrument of development.

No one has benefited more from the work at the Academy than myself. In all respects it is for me a rewarding experience. As a student of public administration I can acquire fresh knowledge. As director I always receive very generous support from our government and officers. The response from the villagers is equally encouraging. Besides I have many dedicated colleagues, and the Ford Foundation and Michigan State University fortify us with help and advice.

And now, members of the Board of Trustees, by this award you have not only honored me, you have assigned an international significance to the work in which I am so happily engaged. I thank you again for the honor, and I also thank you for the substantial sum of money you are giving to me. It would relieve me of anxiety I had lately felt for the education of my children. As I was foolish enough to renounce worldly wealth without renouncing family life, I have, at the age of 49, a seven year old son and very little savings. Your bounty has put an end to my only worry.

 BIOGRAPHY

AKHTER HAMEED KHAN was born in 1914, the eldest son of a cultured Muslim family. He attended Government High School at Jalam, United Provinces, and took his Intermediate Examination at Agra College in history, logic and English literature in 1930. At Meerut College he continued his study of history, philosophy and English literature, receiving his B.A. degree in 1932. His brother remembers young AKHTER with spectacles to correct his weak eyesight and “a very fat book” in his hand, even while eating. “I cannot exist without my books,” was his good-spirited explanation, “they are essential for me as food.”

By manner contemplative and restrained of speech, he was from college days a non-conformist, habitually questioning accepted premises. “Why should I believe in the old dogmas of my religion if they are against logic?” he would typically argue. Methodical in habit he was prepared nonetheless to alter his plans as his learning broadened. In his “search of truth” he was thorough, painstaking, and widely read. Early conversant in Urdu, Hindi, Bengali and English, he also learned Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit to gain insight from great works in those languages. Believing in spiritual evolution, he at one time followed the teachings of the Buddha and at another time sought to apply the practical materialism of Darwin.

Upon receiving his M.A. degree in English literature from Agra University in 1934, instead of competing for the elite Indian Civil Service as did most young men of his promise, he chose a lectureship at Meerut College. In 1936, however, he competed successfully for the Indian Civil Service and was sent to study for the next two years at Maudline College, Cambridge University, England, as part of his training. He continued to immerse himself in religious studies, to the confusion and dismay of family and friends.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)