The garrulous, mustachioed man sipping tea at the breakfast buffet in the Pearl Continental Hotel is without a doubt the highest flier among the leaders of the world’s major cities.
Literally. After all, one reason (probably the reason) Faheem Zaman got the job was his experience piloting Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto around Pakistan in a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.
Modestly, he notes on terra firma, he was not her first choice.
Zaman, 36, knows a lot more about working as a pilot for an air ambulance service than municipal finances or traffic-use surveys, although he’s doing his best to catch up. “I was basically a social worker,” he acknowledges.
Since June, Zaman, an employee of Pakistan’s most celebrated private charity, has been the top government official in Karachi, trying to keep the lid from blowing off one of the world’s fastest-growing, most troubled cities.
“The civic setup in Karachi is a total madhouse,” Zaman says.
The stroke of fate and career path that led him to the job of administrator of the Karachi Municipal Corp., the government organization responsible for most municipal services in the city, could well constitute an Urdu-dubbed remake of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” that Oscar-winning morality tale of squeaky-clean politics.
In a country where raiding the Treasury is considered by many, if not most, as just another perk of office, Zaman draws no salary. The mobile phone and pager he carries everywhere are his personal property. He drives his own car and walks around without the panoply of bodyguards that many Pakistani VIPs considered a necessary, imposing emblem of their importance.
Seated in the Pearl Continental’s coffee shop with a reporter, Zaman at one point wants to jot something down; he pats the pockets of his neat white pajama suit. He finds a ballpoint pen--one that he got, he recalls, from a Karachi Municipal Corp. driver.
It is one of the few items he’s taken from the government in his six months as a bureaucrat, he says.
What about graft? The bustling seaside city of Karachi, whose metropolitan area sprawls over more than 500 square miles, is studded with mansions that politicians and generals, despite their meager official salaries, somehow managed to accumulate the wherewithal for.
In the city’s Engineering Department, the standard kickback rate has been 39%, Zaman and his staff have calculated. He does not aspire to any of those ill-gotten gains.
In fact, he had hoped to be back at the controls of a chopper this month.
“If I make more money, I’ll have more cares,” Zaman says with a shrug. “I’m ready to walk away. I know I’ll find a $48,000 job flying helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico or somewhere else.”
Usually cynical Pakistani reporters who have followed the unique ascent of the reluctant administrator say they take Zaman at his word, but they note that the great temptations he is subject to in his job would challenge even a saint.
Between mouthfuls of tea, and a few calls on his mobile phone, Zaman says that soon after he assumed office, he was offered a bribe of more than $1.5 million. In exchange, he was asked to let 550 acres of Karachi woods and parkland be rezoned to legitimize businesses that had already illegally encroached on the tract. “You know, these offers are never made by strangers,” Zaman says. “They come from my good friends.”
It sounds bizarre, but Zaman was also offered a “present” of more than $160,000 from a municipal contractor if he accepted the lowest bid on a city contract. The lowest bid? “Yes,” Zaman says. “The way business had been done around here, if a bribe wasn’t offered, the contract was put back out for tender.”
Zaman has his work cut out for him.
“Today, Karachi is a living nightmare, a nightmare growing by the day,” the local magazine Newsline says. “It is a city that has broken down, like its roads, its sewerage lines, its power transmitters.”
The problems start with the fact that nobody really knows how many people live in Karachi. Ethnic tensions are running too high to conduct a census, so an accurate head count has been postponed. Conservative estimates range from 8 million to 11.2 million, Zaman says. Some sources put the number of people at millions higher.
Karachi is one of the world’s fastest-growing places: Each year, 200,000 people are born here and 300,000 others--Punjabis, Pathans, Baluchis and Sindis--stream in from other parts of Pakistan, along with illegal Bangladeshi immigrants or refugees from war-tortured Afghanistan.
The city’s elected government was dissolved in 1993, infuriating the majority Mohajir community of immigrants from India and their offspring. It gave another push to ethnic, intra-ethnic and religious armed battles that have made many neighborhoods too dangerous for even police to enter.
Not surprisingly, in the face of the demographic boom and urban guerrilla warfare, “Karachi’s infrastructure is in a total shambles,” Zaman says.
Only people with their own generators can claim reliable, year-round access to electricity. The only totally safe source of drinking water is imported mineral water. Although there are 1.2 million registered vehicles in Karachi, the road network is more or less the same one the British left when they sailed away in 1947.
Only a third of the garbage produced by the city is carted to the dump; much of the rest fouls neighborhoods and streets. Likewise, the sewage system recaptures or treats less than a third of the incoming water. The rest, along with the waste it contains, drains into the Lyari River.
Fewer than 40% of the 700,000 households hooked to the overtaxed municipal water system pay their bill. Utility poles bristle with illegal hookups to power lines.
In the city that served as Pakistan’s capital until 1959, more than half of the people now live in squatter colonies. Living conditions there are so appalling that residents regularly hold protest marches because they have no water to drink.
To deal with this daunting list of headaches, Zaman has 63,000 employees (he estimates the payroll is feather-bedded by as much as 40%) and an annual budget of $151 million, or less than $15 per Karachi resident.
Feeling the same way about Karachi as some in the American heartland do about New York City, the national government in Islamabad has been Scrooge-like about pumping in more money.
In the last 28 years, Zaman complains, there hasn’t been an increase in the property tax, unlike in other cities, such as Lahore.
“The town keeps on going down the drain,” he says.
He was born to immigrants from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in Hyderabad, a city northeast of Karachi. In 1978-82, when Pakistan was under martial law, Zaman left his homeland to study at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan and to take flying lessons.
Returning to a country where few are apolitical, he became an activist for Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party as he studied philosophy at Karachi University.
In 1983, he began working for the Edhi Trust, procuring vehicles and designing the communications network for the country’s only private emergency rescue service.
Last year, as Bhutto campaigned for the premiership, she asked the Karachi-based charity to rent her the foundation’s five-seat Jet Ranger. Zaman came with the deal.
Bhutto was victorious. She approached Zaman’s boss, Abdul Sattar Edhi, who is called “the Pakistani Mother Teresa,” with the request that Edhi take over the administration of Karachi. “He refused, and she asked him to suggest a substitute,” Zaman says.
He was it.
Can he make a difference? Sabir P. Chohan, the managing director of a construction subsidiary of the Housing and Works Ministry, is rooting for him: “I hope he survives 10 years; the city will turn tables.”