Sharad Mathur

Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui: The Architect of Khuda ki Basti

Sharad Mathur

Tasneem - Web Cover

In metropolises across the developing world, the sight of slums co-existing with sprawling high rises and luxurious business centres is not a very uncommon one.  According to 2012 UN-HABITAT data 863 million people world over lived in slums. This is almost 33% of the urban population in the developing world. If we consider the 2013 census data, India alone has more than 65 million people living in slums. That means almost 15% of India’s urban population lives under sorry conditions while always remaining wary of government sent bulldozers. While filth, poverty, crime, and despondency continue to afflict our slums, only a few solutions have worked.  One such solution comes from Pakistan, which in 2001, had 35 million poor people living in its urban areas (according to UN-HABITAT data) and has an acute housing problem of its own.

Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui, a Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) officer, saw it as an adaptive problem and demonstrated adaptive leadership to solve it during his tenures at Hyderabad Development Authority (HDA) and Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA).

Profile Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui

Diagnosing the Problem Right

Siddiqui tells me how it all began with a punishment posting. “The government threw me out of the secretariat and appointed me as the Director General, Hyderabad Development Authority (HDA). They thought it was a punishment post for a person of my seniority.

However, that position was very independent and was away from the mainstream.

Away from the gaze of bureaucrats and politicians, I saw it as an opportunity to solve the housing problem,” he reflects. In the first few days at the job he came across a very ambitious government housing scheme, where over 10,000 plots were balloted, advance payments were collected, and infrastructure was put in place. But nobody lived there. Instead of jumping to the old solutions, he started probing why and focused on two questions – What are the government policies and delivery system and why it is not solving the housing problem? Why large numbers of katchi abadis (squatter settlements) emerge? By talking to people involved, taking input from experts and researchers, and analysing the information available, he discovered four reasons why the government schemes were not showing enough results:

  1. 1. The government housing schemes were not targeting the people who most desperately needed accommodation. The method of targeting that government deployed was flawed. Officials resorted to balloting so that they didn’t need to take subjective decisions and be held accountable. The awareness and complexity of the process ensured that the ignorant poor people who actually needed housing stayed away. Those who had money and awareness used these schemes as investment opportunities.
  2. 2. The mode of delivery and the process associated was also flawed. People who normally ended up living in katchi abadis (squatter settlements) were coming from hinterlands of Balochistan or Punjab to work in the industries of Sindh. While the whole process of launching the scheme, balloting, finding out successful applicants, collecting the money from the applicants in instalments, starting infrastructure development, and finally giving the possession of the land to people so that they can start building their homes took almost 10 years. The migrant labourers who came to the city to work needed a place to stay the very same day. Moreover while they could pay in easy instalments, it was not possible for them to pay the hefty down payment upfront at the time of allotment.
  3. 3. Another issue was of bureaucratic delays, corruption and harassment which have become a characteristic feature of how government services are delivered in the South Asia. For an illiterate or semi-literate migrant it is virtually impossible to get loans from the banks, fill the government forms, file affidavits, get their documents notarised, and complete the process.
  4.  4. However, the biggest issue was that the Hyderabad Development Authority saw its housing schemes as engineering enterprises as opposed to social enterprises. For the officials there, a plot of land was allotted and that was the end of it. They did not care how poor people, who were originally meant to be the beneficiaries of these schemes, would afford to go to their place of work from these far flung areas. The thought of building a school, a dispensary, or other social infrastructure did not even cross their minds.

He also went to a nearby katchi abadi (squatter settlement) to figure out why they were thriving and what he learnt there was eye opening. When a migrant labourer came to the city the only place he could afford to live in was in the katchi abadi (squatter settlement). There he would find a dalal (broker or middleman) who, for a small payment, would allow him an immediate possession of small piece of land to squat on. Moreover, there was no paperwork needed and the amounts involved were not nearly as high as the upfront down payments that government schemes demanded. Proof of ownership was the possession. Moreover, unlike government housing schemes, these settlements existed within the city from where they did could reach their place of work without spending on  transport. Their children could go to school and they could get medical care. Electricity and water connections could be availed at a reasonable price (read bribe). So, all the reasons for which the government schemes fail were getting taken care of.

Making the Right Conclusions


While he found out how the katchi abadis (squatter settlements) were serving the need government housing schemes were not, he did at no point conclude them to be the solution to the housing problem. He knew that the greatest advantage of the government schemes was that they were legal. Once people would get a 99 year lease and the ownership documents, they become free from the fear of government bulldozers turning up and demolishing their dwellings. Also, unlike in the katchi abadis (squatter settlements), there was no chance of a dalal cheating you by taking their money and allotting the plot to someone else. And finally, while katchi abadis (squatter settlements) could use external infrastructure like roads, water, and electric supply they cannot have internal infrastructure where water line, sewage line, and electric cables that would reach their homes. In government schemes too, it takes time for the external and internal infrastructure to be created but it is developed eventually. So he decided to begin solving the housing problem by bringing together the advantages that government housing schemes and katchi abadis (squatter settlements) had.

Orchestrate the Process

“Senior government officials would never listen. There was hardly any use of explaining how I thought the problems can be solved. Most government servants came from the middleclass and they were so busy taking care of the people in their own social group that they could hardly bother about the issues of the poor. They did not understand them and they did not feel a need to listen and understand them. So, to make them sit up and take notice, I had to demonstrate my solution and I was ready to take all the necessary risks,” recalls Siddiqui.

The year was 1987 and it was as perfect a time as any to take a risk. So, Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui selected about 200 acres of land from one of the planned area schemes and decided to use it as ground zero to replicate what worked in katchi abadis (squatter settlements). At the same time, he was very clear that it was not to become a katchi abadi (squatter settlement). The land allotment was to be completely legal and external infrastructure was already developed. However, the challenge of targeting the right people still existed. So he experimented a little more and decided to invite people living in katchi abadis (squatter settlements), verify their credentials and ask them to occupy the plots. But that did not work. “We reached out to the people who needed our kind of accommodation, but making them have faith in us was a herculean task. We put in a lot of effort to tell them that we were government servants and they could check our credentials by visiting our office. After a while, people would come to see the scheme but they were still not ready to stay. We still did not enjoy the faith people had in the dalals while handing over their money!” exclaims Siddiqui.

Thinking People and Relationships

It was the first roadblock for Siddiqui and he needed allies which were difficult to find in the government establishment. Though he did not expect much support from his own comrades, he could see potential allies in the most unexpected quarters.

During the partition when hordes of people came from India, they settled in open areas and spontaneously and haphazardly some katchi abadis (squatter settlements) came up. However, as the industry grew and migrant labourers started coming in, the phenomenon of organised katchi abadis (squatter settlements) started gaining ground. Now the dalals (brokers), who were actually the land mafia, started encroaching and subdividing government land near the factories illegally. They involved the local police, local musclemen and lower functionaries of the land owning agencies in this. These organised katchi abadis (squatter settlements) had a plan just like the government schemes had. In fact, the dalals (brokers) used to contract a surveyor or engineer from the city development authority to prepare these plans. What worked best for them was a good reputation they had developed in the area. They would never default on delivery after taking the payment. And they did not abandon their buyers after the sale is done but also helped them to design their dwelling and connected them with cheap construction material supplier them in building their dwellings. A parallel industry of thallas (machine-made building blocks) flourished because of this. Understanding the dynamics involved, Siddiqui saw a potential ally in the dalals (brokers). “You see they were Sharif Badmash (gentleman crooks). They were doing an illegal thing, but they were solving a problem too,” Siddiqui told me with a chuckle. To make dalals (brokers) interested, Siddiqui took another big risk by allowing them an incentive. He told them that they would be allowed to distribute the plots to poor people from katchi abadis (squatter settlements) at their discretion if they ensure that those people will come and stay. When the dalals (brokers) started convincing the people living in katchi abadis, they began to listen and started coming in. To make it more attractive to the new settlers, he also allowed the dalals (brokers) to build and sell improvised houses.

Now when the people started coming in, Siddiqui wanted to accelerate the process.

Holding the Ship Steady

Khuda ki Basti

Khuda ki Basti

Just then, an interesting development happened. “Around 50 families came and occupied plots without our permission. This worried us. In Sindh, seasonal migrations take place because there exists a drought prone part of the Thar Desert and these were the affected people who had come with their families looking for a livelihood. When we told them that they can’t occupy these government plots we had cut out for the people with low income, without our permission, they shot back saying ‘These plots are for poor people and we are poor people. Where is the problem?’ This was a eureka moment,” says Siddiqui with a tinge of excitement in his voice.

He then declared that any person, who brings family and luggage with him, is eligible to benefit from this scheme. They only needed to pay 10% of the price as down payment and rest was to be paid in easy instalments over six years. Paper work was also much reduced and  people only needed to furnish their identity cards with the application and a single card was maintained to track their payments. While allotting a plot, three conditions were also imposed to ensure that the entire scheme does not derail: it had to be occupied and not to be left vacant, construction must start in one month’s time, and instalments must be paid on time.

The masterstroke however was when he got 20 rooms built as the reception area and welcomed shelter-less and needy to come in stay there for 15 days till they get allotted a plot of 80 sqft. While people stayed at the reception area, they needed to pay rent for it and as soon as they got their plot, they were required to move there. He got posters with the invitation put up on the railway stations, near katchi abadis (squatter settlements) and in the industrial area. Soon, he did not need any help from dalals (brokers).

As people started coming he approached NGOs to open schools and health care centers. He influenced private transporters to provide their services. And he made the site office the focal point for all these services. Interestingly, this site office was not a typical government office and in the crucial initial days, was open round the clock. He told his engineers that they also needed to see themselves as social activists since it was a social enterprise they worked for. Finally, he organised the residents to take charge of solving their own problems and commencing some income generating schemes like women’s cooperatives.

This was a self-contained community where people from low-income group could live with honour and dignity, without any fear. One-third of the residents were earning their money within the community. A number of shops opened; there were people making houses, carpenters, masons, daily wage workers and all that. This was the first incremental housing scheme of Pakistan and its residents named it Khuda Ki Basti or the God’s settlement.

There was now a solution.

Tasneem Ahmed Siddiqui – The Man, the System

When I asked Siddiqui how he managed to deviate from the set government norms, he smiled and told me, “I deviated from the set process and it was a big risk. However, if you are a sensible bureaucrat, you will know how to deal with the politicians. I invited the then chief minister of the state to Khuda Ki Basti and he was more than happy to endorse this project because this would allow him to be seen as pro-poor which is very important in the electoral politics of the sub-continent.”

However, all the architects, engineers, planners and government officials, who were invited to take a look at it, rejected it outright in unison. In some time, he was shunted out of the Hyderabad Development Authority (HDA). After being removed from the Hyderabad Development Authority (HDA), Siddiqui was out of a job for two years. This was some reward for the great service he rendered.

However, he did not leave the work he had started and took it to another level. With a twinkle in his eye, he told me, “Then I formed my own NGO in 1991 and through it continued to support the people in Khuda Ki Basti. In due course of time we replicated that model successfully in Karachi, Gharo and Lahore and demonstrated that the solution was replicable.“

Looking for an opportunity to contribute, Siddiqui then met his mentor, Akhtar Hameed Khan who had also worked extensively on katchi abadis (squatter settlements) through the Orangi Project. Khan suggested that he take up the next issue of maintenance and regularisation of the existing katchi abadis (squatter settlements). Inspired by this, he joined Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA) as its Director General in 1991, even though he was over-qualified for this job.

Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA) came into being because the Government of Sindh had made a legal provision for recognition and up-gradation of katchi abadis (squatter settlements). The project was backed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, and had received funds from the Asian Development Bank. And despite  that, it was a bureaucratic mess. In his research, he found that process for regularisation of plots had about 23 steps and every step involved cost, time and hassle. No daily wage earner could possibly persist with such a long process to regularise his plot. So, he simplified the process, took the leasing process to the katchi abadi (squatter settlement) by setting up mobile lease camps, and partnered with NGOs to increase awareness. While the attempt was to regularise the katchi abadis (squatter settlements) wherever possible, in case of the people living there were to be relocated, he introduced a ruling that rates should commensurate with the location, size of the plot and use of the plot.

The Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority (SKAA) did not take any donations or grants and became self-financing body by collecting lease money from katchi abadi dwellers. The revenue which was generated was spent on three areas – to pay cost of land to the land owing agency, staff and office utilities, and on infrastructure development in the katchi abadi.

Over next 10 to 12 years, most of the katchi abadis in Karachi were regularised. When Siddiqui left Sindh Katchi Abadi Authority, there was Rs. 10 crore in its kitty. Reflecting on his journey, Siddiqui told me, “I developed into a social activist because I worked for social enterprises. I was a bureaucrat and I wanted to remain in the bureaucratic setup because it was to my advantage. I could not have done any of this if I was only a social activist running an NGO.”

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