Struggles of a Conscientious Government Servant: Lessons Learned from Memoirs of Irtiqa Zaidi


I felt honored when I was asked to review the book of memoirs of Mr Irtiqa Zaidi that is about to go into publication. The book is exciting, enjoying, and often a thrilling account of his photographic memory of the events spanning the expanse from his childhood in Quetta to his rise as a senior official in Government, where he was involved in some momentous agreements of Pakistan related to trade and commerce. 

My first meeting with Mr Irtiqa Zaidi was in the early 1970s when he got posted in Islamabad and came to stay at our place while waiting for the allotment of a suitable government accommodation. Irtiqa Chacha is a close relative of my father, and also the elder brother of my brother in law.   During that first winter when he was staying with us, I remember listening to his stories with my father, mother and sisters huddled around coal fire with blankets wrapped around us. I remember listening intently to his wonderful and picturesque narrations that were and still are full of humor and suspense with dramatic turns and twists from among the huge collection of his encounters and personal experiences. I recall that this fully captivating story telling sessions would often seamlessly extend for hours. I had the pleasure of listening to such experiences throughout the seventies when he was among those few relatives that we had in Islamabad, with whom we would regularly meet every week or so. During 1980s and later when I had moved to Karachi,  I would lose no opportunity during my trips to Islamabad to get that warmth of his riveting accounts often starting around dinner time and extending deep into the night.

Coming from that experience of his oral traditions, and after having read the book, I can safely say that this is only the first installment of his store of vivid memories and we are looking forward to an inspiring writer who would now be rendering in print that voluminous store of vivid memories, in volume after volume. At times the details in the book suggest that he has been taking copious notes. However, I think that these graphic details are etched in his mind because of his extra ordinary ability to engage anyone around him with stories of interesting life events. His distinctive humorous style would compel people to soon gather around him, and in no time he would become the center of attraction. This is still true for any gathering where he is. You will see this in his various accounts of foreign training programs and visits, university life, national tours, office gatherings and associations. In fact he quickly became the center of social events wherever they were. The fantastic thing about his stories is that he would always pullout the ones relevant to the audience. I am sure that he remembers the facts because he has related them orally so many times to so many people. Moreover, he had the unique distinction of always remembering the ones he has already told to whom and thus never boring any one with repetition. In cases when he would repeat an incident it would be in a uniquely differently manner.

The book represents the recollection in writing emanating from this refined store of his memories etched in his mind due to their repeated oral renditions in gatherings. This book contains events that I don’t remember hearing from him earlier. I suspect in this book he has tried to write down the stories that he has seldom related elsewhere and would like to put them on record. Especially, those related to the challenges of his career and the conflicts that emanated on policy related issues and personalities. Which incidentally is the subtitle of the book that it is the story of a government servant. 

Here are the lessons that I have learned from this book and how I see their relevance to our present challenges. In the following I relate my learning from the incidents of this book. The author may have written them from a different perspective. 

Jhoot ko burai samajhna: How abhorrence of lying was inculcated

Some interesting childhood incidences related in this book indicate how elders in the families in the decades of 50s-60s inculcated in their children an abhorrence for “lying” through personal example. The incident about how a neighbor’s “murgha” (cock) enters the house and mistakenly gets killed when a rather heavy footwear is hurled towards it by an elder woman in the house who was trying to scare it and trying to shoo it away. There was remorse and a conference to decide what needs to be said when eventually the neighbor would come looking for it. The deliberations described indicate how important it was to phrase the explanation that it should not constitute a lie. This incident emphasized in the child not to tell a lie, so that he remembers as a value to be cherished irrespective of the consequences. Some other incidences bring out how these values were not taught but were learned through daily life incidences. 

Teachers of 1950s and 1960s

It was interesting to learn that the notion that today’s teachers have somehow inferior values and ethics than previous times turns out to be not true. There are good and bad teachers in every era. Some are good and others not good. For instance, Math’s teacher who forced the students to buy ink from the poor students and then victimizing and becoming vindictive on those students who could not afford to buy or would not buy reminds me of similar tactics by today’s teachers when they victimize the students who do not come for private tuitions from them. However, not all teachers were bad. There were some teachers like Mr Saleem who were passionate about their subject and would go out of their way to help the students becomes very clear. There were good and bad teachers in school as well as in the universities. 

Cheating as Mischief in Exams 

The culture of taking help in examination and where possible trying to circumvent the rules was already taking root during the 1960s . Although cheating/taking undue help had not been institutionalized at that time. The intent, then, was more from the point of view of student indulging in mischief to explore the limits of the system and to test whether the teacher or the student is smarter. However, later this mischief evolved into an institutionalized culture that brought to the knees the system of meritocracy in Pakistan. Starting in 1970s as an unstated policy to support the backward area people’s mobility into the government jobs and continuing into 1980s, cheating culture was allowed to make mockery of the board examinations. By 1990s the board examinations had lost lost all their credibility and had forced the universities to resort to entry tests. Good news is that Punjab and to lesser extent KPK has greatly controlled the prevalence of cheating in board exams. Punjab had nearly eliminated the cheating culture from the matric and intermediate board examination over the last 20 years, and is even contemplating eliminating the entry tests for medical and engineering universities. KPK is fast on the track during the last few years, and is on road to completely cleanse the cheating culture. However, Sindh and Balochistan, instead of improving, continues to slide down to ever greater abyss of the cheating culture.  

Lectures in English 

How the use of English has pushed the children from poorer background to remain poor was already established in the 1950s and 1960s. This can be seen from the struggle of the poor people mentioned at Tando Jam University, and how the English competency of Irtiqa Zaidi sb (thanks to the interest developed during the school years by Mr Saleem), enabled him to breeze through the university studies. Competency in English in Pakistan had been and is equated with competency in knowledge, thinking and ability. Interestingly enough English as a yardstick to measure the competence of a Pakistani had been used by the elites to keep the poor people from not challenging the status quo. Only a few very committed and fortunate children who get some good guidance or a good teacher are able to tear out from their straitjacket, improve their English and join the elite club. The book highlights several instance where this extraordinary effort that went into writing flawlessly enabled Irtiqa Zaidi sb to become indispensable for his bosses in the government who really wanted to do something. 

Tribal Areas of DI Khan, Lady Doctor’s Kidnapping and Today’s Issues

As I read the interesting story of the Lady Doctor’s kidnapping by the tribals of DI Khan in early 1970s, that got viral on the media of that time, and people were avidly following the proceedings in newspapers, I was comparing with the current situation of DI Khan. Poor and starving people of the tribal areas with no sources of generating income from legal means had been resorting to kidnapping for ransom since old times. The lady doctor who was abducted during Ramazan leaving behind her child and husband was very disturbed and afraid. However, the kidnappers treated her well, as she recounted after her release. They told her that they had planned to kidnap her along with her husband and children so that they can live comfortably in their custody but as alarm was raised much earlier they could not follow the plan and had to just escape with the lady doctor only. However, no harm came to her and she befriended the ladies of the tribe of the kidnappers. The tribe-women had told her that if they do not get the ransom, they will starve. The lifestyle of the kidnappers of the 1970s showed their plight. The lady doctor eventually got her release through ransom. 
Successive governments had done nothing to ameliorate the causes that had compelled these tribes to resort to kidnapping for earning their livelihood. As I was reading this book in 2016, one can see that the situation had not changed. Coincidentally the news in the media when I was writing this were again related to a similar kidnapping for ransom in DI Khan. Areas around DI Khan and DG Khan seem not to have been amalgamated in Pakistan. The tribes are still living in a no-man’s land; there had been no development, no infrastructure and no income generation. The Ayub, Bhutto, Zia, and Musharraf eras had done nothing except to exploit them for resources or use them for strategic depth purposes creating a huge problem that we are still fighting. Only now there is some talk about making these areas a formal part of the federation.  

Punjgor Travel in Balochistan and the Dangers and Today’s Situation 

As I read the dangers and life threatening visit to Punjgor in Baluchistan in the early 1970s, I could visualize the fear of travel for the government officials and private vehicles. Even in those times the roads were bad, broken, without any means of communication, no support for vehicles breaking down, vehicles had to travel in convoys for fear of kidnappers and violence from the tribes. Fast forward to 2016, and one reads every week and every month some major incident of vehicles getting ambushed. Forces getting killed. Hazaras getting killed. Travelers getting abducted. Starting from the Military Operation of the 1970s during Bhutto regime and the continuing Baluchistan operation over the last 20 years starting from Gen Musharraf, leading to creation of BLA, killing of Bugti, forced disappearances of locals, Baluchistan had become a playground of foreign intelligence agencies and games played by our sensitive agencies. There seems to be no respite. Ignoring Baluchistan, and exploiting the wealth had remained the hallmark of all the governments. Only today with CPEC related development, one sees some changes with massive investment in the infrastructure. However, would it transform the lives of Baluchistan  or would CPEC turn out to be yet another exploitation remains to be seemed. 

Check Dams and the Parliamentarian Insistence on Development in his Constituency

It was interesting to read about how a Baluchistan minister who was not well versed in the technicalities of project design imploring the government official to shift the money for Check Dams (which could only be constructed in a particular terrain) to his constituency which had an incompatible geography and terrain unsuitable for that kind of dam. However, government officials in their restricted view of project feasibility could not appreciate and fathom that for the minister it was important that some development work had to be done in his constituency. In the minister’s knowledge, this was the only project that could have been executed. And he probably did not have the competence or the bureaucratic support to design an appropriate project for his area. 
This incidence tells us why bureaucracy which had not been creative enough to come up with feasible projects for the poor constituencies of the ministers was later forced and coerced into supporting infeasible projects. The issue was not the feasibility of the project but the short term injection of development money in that poor area. Had the government officials understood the development needs of the ministers and designed feasible projects for them in the first place, the situation may not have descended to a level where these representatives of the poor constituencies had to coerce the bureaucrats to put in the development in their areas the only way they knew , whether by hook or by crook. A bureaucracy responsive to the development needs of the poor constituencies could have easily designed development projects for the ministers that were both feasible, efficient and sustainable. 

Gawadar Road’s Dilapidated Condition and Today 

Dilapidated roads of Gawadar of early 1970s as described in the book and comparing them with Coastal Highway connecting Karachi with Gawadar and hundreds of kilometers of recently constructed Indus Highway and its link highways in interior Baluchistan indicate that things are definitely improving. The incident described in the book where the car breaks down on that rubble road to Gawadar in the dead of the night in the vast wilderness where there is no one living for hundreds of kilometers, and which necessitated the procurement of spare parts from hundreds of miles away was scary.

However, lately the CPEC related massive improvement in the infrastructure is happening today, and this story seems destined to remain a story of bygone days. The politics of development money going into Gawadar with hope for a trickle down to the poor tribes of Baluchistan is a wish that may or may not be fulfilled. The rewards of CPEC must trickle down to the people of Baluchistan otherwise there would be no peace. 

1973’s Administrative Reforms and their Adverse Effects

Politics of Bureaucracy: Economist Group vs DMG 

It was amusing to see the politics of bureaucracy revolving about who is going to be promoted to which grade depending upon which group one belongs. The incessant politics of who is going to the next foreign trip seems to be the only desire in Islamabad. How merit is sacrificed, quota system is enforced on the basis of provinces, how artificially subgroups of government servants are designed and labeled as DMG, Economist or other groups, and ethnic and personal and political affiliations play out in the corridors of powers is instructive of the chasm between the world of government and the world of the poor people of Pakistan. The old machinery of bureaucracy was amputated through 3not3 followed by later expulsions, followed by lateral inductions of cronies which destroyed the “public service” and led to self service by bureaucrats.

While the bureaucratic politics plays out, it seems from the incidents described in this book that the government bureaucracy is there to support and implement the agenda of World Bank, IMF or Asia Bank to satisfy the aspirations of foreigners. To entice the government officials to sign WTO and other such international treaties (to which even USA is not signatory) only requires that a handful of senior government officials be sent on official jaunts and foreign trips funded by the vested interest and one could have these officials sign any treaty. 

Whatever government remains is on the shoulders of few conscientious public servants who burn their midnight oil and work diligently and with commitment. Mr Irtiqa Zaidi comes out as one such representative. People like him are the lone wold trying to fight the battles with such donors with vested interests. 

Guilty unless Proven Innocent Attitude of Government vs The Hague Experience

Government machinery in Pakistan works on the assumption that all are guilty unless they prove otherwise their innocence. All procedures and systems in Pakistan are based on this “First Principle”. The Hague experience where cash was disbursed to the visiting delegation with no receipt came as a stark rejoinder to the alternative system. In The Hague trip, Mr Irtiqa Zaidi recounts how the lady in charge of the cash disbursements was distributing cash without receipts. When the conflict arose the attitude of “Innocent unless Proven Guilty” brings the best of ethics out of the people and leads to a graceful resolution. This is the lesson that designers of Pakistani system of governance should learn from.

Work in Progress on the following subsections:

Conflict with Nadeemul Haq 

Incompetence of Gilani and Shujaat

Boldness, and standing on what is right. Counseling during the early part of the career by?

Not accepting pressures from highest quarters, seniors, secretaries, ministers, prime minsters, USA, …

Ahsan Iqbal acting on his suggestions

Afghan Transit trade and US facilitation of Indian interests


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