KARACHI, Pakistan -- A Pakistani TV star has drawn huge ratings after handing out babies abandoned in garbage heaps to childless couples live on-air in prime time.
Part televangelist and part game show host, Aamir Liaquat Hussain is the biggest name on Pakistani television.
His wildly popular "Aman Ramadan" program is broadcast for 14 hours a day, every day throughout the Muslim holy month which ended Thursday.
Hussain has always had his critics, who regard him as a shameless entertainer with questionable Islamic credentials, and when he starting handing out babies, seemingly like just another prize, there was outrage.
"There's nothing wrong with handing out abandoned babies to willing parents, but it’s the way he's doing it, in front of everyone, on live television," newspaper columnist Nadeem Farooq Paracha said. "You are not doing it for God, you are doing it for ratings."
Geo TV via AFP - Getty Images
Pakistani television star Aamir Liaqat Hussain speaks with Surayya Bilqees after she was given an abandoned baby named Zainab during his show on July 21.
That's a charge strongly denied by Hussain.
"It's not a prize, it's not a game show, it's real charity," he said. "Giving away is the wrong word. We actually hand over children to needy parents."
Ramzan Chhipa, who runs one of this teeming and often-violent coastal city's biggest emergency response organizations, said the plight of the garbage babies is something that still touches the most hardened of his workers.
Chhipa has struggled in vain to draw attention to the issue, to raise awareness, to persuade desperate and impoverished parents not to abandon their unwanted babies amid the trash.
"We find eight to ten bodies a month in the garbage, mostly girls," said Chhipa, who runs the Chhipa Welfare Association. "This is the reason we are going on the show, to give the awareness, to give the information to the public."
Just a day later, Chhipa carried a small bundle along a narrow path between rows of gravestones before kneeling and lowering it into a shallow hole. Under an instense afternoon sun, the hole was filled with dirt and sealed. Chhipa sprinkled rose petals and said a brief prayer before leaving the grave - unnamed and unmarked.
Geo TV via AFP - Getty Images
Aamir Liaqat Hussain holds abandoned child named Aman Ali before handing him over to a childless couple on August 2.
The body in a white cloth had been that of a newborn baby girl - perhaps two days old. She'd been found only hours earlier, dumped on a garbage heap.
Amid that grim and desperate side of life, controversy over the baby giveaways has left Chhipa a little bewildered. He said his organization also provided the parents, after careful vetting. "We have a strict check and balance system," Chhipa added. "We have applications from thousands of couples who do not have babies."
Hussain's show veers from discussions with Islamic scholars to a tacky quiz, during which he bounds around the ornate studio, up and down stairs, asking questions and giving away motorcycles, washing machines, cars, cell phones and his own brand clothing.
By mid-evening - prime-time - the audience has been whipped up into a frenzy.
At one point Hussain approached a policeman in the audience, still in his uniform, asking him three questions about Islam. The bewildered policeman didn't have a clue. "So, tell where the main jail is in Karachi?" He knew that answer and won a cell phone. The audience erupted with laughter.
"This is the real Islam," Hussain says of his show. "It's a celebration. Light talk, serious talk, game show, children's party, cooking. It’s a celebration."
The first couple who'd received a prime-time baby, Riaz-Ud-Din and Tanzeem Riaz, confirmed that they had been through a series of interviews and knew they would be receiving the baby on live television.
Kyle Eppler / NBC News
Tanzem Riaz described her adopted daughter as a "gift from God."
"We didn't mind doing it on television," said Riaz-Ud-Din as he cradled his tiny adopted daughter Fatima. "I wanted to help break the taboo about adoption. I wanted to give a message to other brothers and sisters who divorce each other or fight because they can't have a baby that they can stay together and do it this way."
They had been trying for a baby for 14 years. "It’s a gift from God. Its changed our lives," Tanzem Riaz said.
Chhipa is a regular in the show's audience, where he sits impassive as the prizes are awarded. He's now set up cribs outside the 60-odd emergency centers his organization runs across the city, urging the desperate to deposit their babies alive and anonymously if they really can't keep them.
"We are constantly doing this campaign to make people aware, do not kill a baby. Do not kill a baby."
He watched as another DVD player was handed out by Hussain to another ecstatic winner. There were no babies on this evening's show. Ramadan is now ending, and Hussain has topped the ratings by a mile. Millions have tuned in during the holy month, and it has been a goldmine for his channel Geo Entertainment.
Though for Chhipa what really matters are the babies. The rest is really irrelevant as long as the publicity serves to raise awareness and can save a baby from the trash.
First published August 8 2013, 7:04 AM