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 Karachis 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 governments
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 Karachis
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 Pakistans prestigious Civil Service Academy, Siddiqui met Akhter
Hameed Khan. The young Siddiqui imbibed the formidable Khans moral passion to
alleviate poverty and also his community-building approach to 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
"poors huge potential for finding solutions to their own problems."
At SKAA, Siddiqui cut boldly 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 SKAAs 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
Despite Siddiquis fast-track approach, the process is painstaking and slow. Many
katchi abadis remain beyond the benevolent reach of SKAAs small staff of 175.
Siddiqui himself has been transferred in and out of the agency. Still, in hundreds of
Karachis poorest neighborhoods, a quiet transformation has been set in motion.
For someone who likes to shake up the system, fifty-nine-year-old Siddiqui is a man of
mild manners and considerate ways. He is famously accessible. He returns phone calls. Yet,
as a 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 board of trustees recognizes his demonstrating that a committed
government agency working in partnership with NGOs and with the poor themselves can turn
the tide against Pakistans crippling shelter crisis.