Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Interview: Taking challenges and moving ahead

July 21, 2013

“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.

“For instance, I was DG Katchi Abadi Authority but didn’t have a free hand; the minister would want it done another way. There is a sort of fear, you know that if you don’t follow the lines you will be fired and so you work under pressure. You have to be a very brave person, do what you think is right irrespective of the consequences.” He believes that the bureaucrats are ‘risk averse’ as they don’t want to take risks.

He further says that in the NGO sector there is a lot of freedom and nobody interferes in your work but there is a problem of funding. For example, whoever wants to do something he is dependent on someone for funds. The donors have their own agenda and don’t let you deviate from it. Then the NGOs have great overhead costs; in some cases 40pc money goes towards the salaries and perks of their high officials, besides the cost incurred on monitoring teams, evaluations and auditing, etc.

About unplanned urban development Siddiqui Sahib says that in the initial 25 years the planners and developers were competent and made master plans, and foresaw the city’s growth. This continued till 1985, after which master planning stopped. It is very strange that the master planning department of this city of more than 15 million is dysfunctional. There is no master plan of this city. Previously there used to be prioritisation — it was seen what is more important, motorway or market, repairing old roads or building new bridges.

All over the world, the standard is that city centres have residence facilities for the low-income people so they can walk or cycle to their place of work. There should have been ground plus three flats in areas like Saddar, I.I. Chundrigar Road, Dr Ziauddin Ahmed Road for low-income people, but in five-mile radius of these we have big bungalows and the low-income people are living in Gadap, Baldia, etc., and have to commute long distance by bus. Lack or planning and ignoring the need of the poor or anti-poor bias, is not right.

Of his three children no one chose to enter civil service, and as the situation of government service deteriorated he himself didn’t encourage them. Yet they keep themselves abreast with his work, and are interested in social issues and contribute to his projects when they have the time. He shares that his daughter often accompanies him and handles all his secretarial work and manages his emails and website as well as he is not computer savvy.