“Satisfaction comes from taking challenges and giving solutions to problems and implementing new ideas. True success is to work in a government sector which is very corrupt, incompetent and highly politicised and create a niche for yourself and show some results; that is more challenging and more satisfying,” believes Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui, a veteran bureaucrat and social worker.
True to his thinking, Siddiqui Sahib took challenges and risks throughout his career as a bureaucrat and worked as he deemed right, which was not always liked by higher authorities. He relates that due to this, before 1991 the average time between his transfers and postings was six to eight months; he had even had a transfer in three months. He had the option of leaving government service but then realised that working within the system was a bigger challenge. There are more opportunities to deliver while being in government than in an NGO. “What I could do as director general of Katchi Abadi Authority I could not while working in an NGO.” It is the government’s job to regularise the slums since it has the power and its resource base is larger.
Born in 1939 in Meerut, Siddiqui Sahib had his early education there and came to Lahore in 1948. After facing some disruption in education he started afresh and did a double masters and appeared for the CSS exams in 1965. He was sent for a year’s training to Lahore. In May 1969 he was sent for two years to the erstwhile East Pakistan, and was there when the military action started in March 1971 after the elections. But thankfully his two-year tenure was over and he came back before the war. In 1983, he was sent to Harvard for further studies and did masters in public administration. After serving in different capacities in a number of cities he finally retired from government service in 2005.
In 1995, Siddiqui Sahib received the Aga Khan award for architecture. It was only after this that his work was recognised. Then in 1999 he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, after which the government of Pakistan also awarded him Sitara-i-Imtiaz in the same year.
While he was posted in Hyderabad during the late ’80s as director general of the Hyderabad Development Authority, he got the chance to work in the housing department. During his stay there he set up the Khuda ki Basti, a housing scheme for the poor. He feels he could do this work since Hyderabad is away from the eyes and interference of higher authorities. From then on his focus shifted to housing and continued to be so even after his transfer from Hyderabad.
Back in Karachi, Siddiqui Sahib felt the need to do something for the people and so got in touch with Akhtar Hameed Khan whom he got to know during his training in Comila in 1966. Though his work was different from what Khan Sahib was doing, Khan Sahib asked him to meet the officials of the Katchi Abadi Authority. In 1991 he became its director
general, but some politicians didn’t like his work, as they had their own politics, and asked him to work the way they wanted. Since he did not comply he was made an office on special duty (OSD).
He again went to Khan Sahib who asked him to work with him. “For about 18 months I remained an OSD, taking salary from the government and working with Khan Sahib where I was learning how things are done.”
After about one-and-a half-year, when the government changed, he was reposted at the Katchi Abadi Authority, where he carried out research and proper planning regarding how the poor people living in these settlements can be given ownership rights at low cost.
During this period he was given different positions, but on his asking was allowed to hold additional charge of the katchi abadi department and worked there for 10-12 years.
The work at the department was organised in a way that revenue started coming in and this money was spent on development work. It too became a model — now there were two models: one of regularisation and the other of up-gradation.
In 1992 he set up his NGO, Saiban, with the aim to provide housing solutions to low-income and marginalised communities and to continue the work on housing even if he was not in the government.
Rather than showing unconditional penchant towards bureaucracy, Siddiqui Sahib takes a rational view of the shortcomings of the bureaucracy and its functioning. He says that during the initial 25 years after independence things were going in the right direction, the country witnessed economic growth and industrialisation; corruption among politicians was negligible; and the bureaucrats were working diligently.
The restructuring of the bureaucracy and more power to the politicians during the Bhutto era demoralised the bureaucrats who gradually gave up decision-making. Their non-partisan status started to decline as the appointments began to be made on party basis, or on the payment of bribe. The system cannot run without bureaucracy, but they have to be competent, honest, professional, non-partisan, appointed on merit only and accessible.
The coming of NGOs on the scene started another debate, i.e. can the NGOs replace the state? The thinking that the government has failed to deliver and there is corruption and incompetence, gave an opportunity for the mushroom growth of NGOs in all sectors like health, education, sanitation, etc. Siddiqui Sahib believes that NGOs cannot replace the state; the state has larger resource base, and until the state does something things will not improve. The NGOs can do their bit to lend a helping hand. Their basic work is to do research and present solutions to the problem and demonstrate it as a model.
Sharing his views on the difference between working with the government and NGO, Siddiqui Sahib says that the government has its strengths and weaknesses. While it has ample resources and a big mandate, in the absence of rules, regulations and precedents one cannot work and then there is a lot of political interference.