Thursday, July 31, 2008

About the Founder

Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui: The slums of modern Karachi, known as katchi abadis, began as the shanty towns of Muslim Indian refugees to Pakistan at the time of Partition. They swelled in the 1950s as rural folk sought jobs in Karachi’s burgeoning industries and swelled again when civil war overtook East Pakistan in 1971.
These spontaneous settlements of the uprooted poor grew with such speed that they wholly outstripped the government’s attempts to control them, flooding the city center and forming hundreds of illegal "colonies" on its periphery. In them, the striving poor lived in squalor, without titles, without services, without sewers and drains and water mains. They still do, in more than five hundred katchi abadis. In them live 40 percent of Karachi’s population: four million people!Addressing this reality in 1972, the government of Pakistan declared that katchi abadis should be legally acknowledged (or "regularized") and integrated into the city proper with infrastructure and services. But for many years thereafter little was accomplished. Urban councils failed at the task and so, too, did the Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority, or SKAA, which the government established in 1987 to address the squatter problem in Sindh Province. But when Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui became director general of SKAA in 1991, things changed. As a trainee at Pakistan’s Civil Service Academy, Siddiqui met Akhter Hameed Khan. The young Siddiqui imbibed Khan’s moral passion to alleviate poverty and also his community-building approach towards doing so. Later, as director general of the Hyderabad Development Authority, Siddiqui designed Khuda-ki-Basti, a housing project for the urban poor that imitated the way illegal squatters actually build their neighborhoods. Rejecting the stereotype of the poor as freeloaders and criminals, he saw the katchi abadis as centers of dynamism whose occupants were both industrious and resourceful. Projects like Khuda-ki-Basti succeed, he says, because they tap the "poor’s huge potential for finding solutions to their own problems." At SKAA, Siddiqui cut through mounds of red tape to make it easier for katchi abadis to be regularized. He wrested control of the lease-assigning process from sluggish local councils and streamlined it, thereby giving slum residents swift security of tenure and making SKAA self-financing. He utilized practical low-cost technologies for SKAA infrastructure projects, weeding out corrupt contractors and reducing costs. He worked closely with the Orangi Pilot Project and NGOs to improve SKAA’s engagement with the communities and to enhance social services such as health care, family planning, credit, and education. Critically, Siddiqui and his staff established a working rapport with the katchi abadi dwellers themselves. They now install and pay for their own water and sewerage systems, maintain SKAA-built storm drains, coordinate the neighborhood leasing process, and collaborate with SKAA and NGOs to introduce the social services they most need. As active partners in upgrading their own neighborhoods, they are the key to the program’s sustainability.Despite Siddiqui’s fast-track approach, the process is painstaking and slow. Many katchi abadis remain beyond the benevolent reach of SKAA’s small staff of 175. However, in hundreds of Karachi’s poorest neighborhoods, a quiet transformation has been set in motion. Siddiqui himself was transferred in and out of the agency. He retired from the Pakistan Civil Services in 2005 at the age of 65. As a long-time reformer, he has been stung by smear campaigns and bureaucratic reprisals. About this and about the magnitude of the task his agency faces daily, he says, "I am a realist." And adds, "And an optimist." In electing Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui to receive the 1999 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the awrad's board of trustees recognized his demonstrating that a committed government agency working in partnership with NGOs and with the poor themselves can turn the tide against Pakistan’s crippling shelter crisis.

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