AURORA: Tell us about your background and your interest in horticulture.
TAHA SALEEM: I am part of the Pakistan Administrative Service (PAS), the next level when you clear the CSS exams; usually the top positions go to PAS. One of the advantages of a career such as this is the fact that we are posted all over Pakistan. Before assuming this position, I was posted in Balochistan for over six and a half years where I held several key positions, including Deputy Commissioner Zhob. Before that, I was in finance, so I have experience there as well. This is my first posting in Sindh. I have a degree in Environmental Development from the University of Sussex; I took this degree because I was interested in the environment and climate change.
A: What motivated you to assume the position of DG Parks?
TS: Firstly, the opportunity to work in Karachi. Secondly, I have seen what has happened to Karachi in terms of horticultural development. When I was offered the position by the Administrator of Karachi, I was hesitant because the history of this department has been a bit patchy. However, on the positive side, I thought this would be a good opportunity to make a difference; to try and reform the department and build trust. I took it up as a challenge because there is a lot of scope for improvement.
A: How long have you been in this position?
TS: Just a month.
A: In general terms, what is the mandate of this department?
TS: KMC is responsible for Karachi’s bigger parks, such as Aziz Bhatti Park, Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim, Hill Park, Ibn-e-Jinnah Park, the Polo Ground; in total, we are responsible for about 40 parks. We are also responsible for the green belts on all the major roads that come under the purview of KMC. Earlier, we used to organise flower shows, but these were discontinued some years ago. This department was also responsible for the development of nurseries, but this too has stopped. So at the moment we are just maintaining our parks, cutting trees and grass and watering them. There is a need for a vision which will also revive the positive things that were previously done. We are also responsible for the development of parks but due to budgetary constraints we have been reduced in size and have been unable to do so.
A: Are you saying that the mandate of the Parks and Horticulture Department has been reduced?
TS: Not on paper, but we are not performing at full efficiency.
A: Now that you have assumed this role, what will be your strategy?
TA: We have been working on developing a strategy for the past one month. We have to accept the reality that parks and horticulture is now a technical field and we have to open our doors to the experts and involve them in our decision-making process so that we avoid making mistakes and see our efforts go to waste. At the macro level, the first thing we did is form an Advisory Board of experts to help us take informed decisions based on sound technical reasons rather than personal preferences. At the micro level, we are involving the local community by instituting small park committees. As a pilot project, we are working on two parks – Hill Park and Sir Syed Park, both of which have committees drawn from the local community to advise us.
A: How does this translate on a practical level?
TS: We have given ownership of these parks to the community to manage them in whatever way they can. These are people who are really interested in seeing their parks thrive. For example, there were complaints of irregular attendance by the gardeners. So the community got together with them to discuss this and other matters and this involvement has seen gardener attendance improve. I have told these committees that they must take ownership of the parks. The government cannot do everything but if they bring any issues to our notice we will try to provide solutions. For example, both the Hill Park and the Sir Syed Park committees informed us about security concerns, so I spoke to the Administrator and he provided 100 city wardens to be placed there. It is a two-way communication between us and the local community – we are only a WhatsApp message away. We intend to replicate these committees across all parks. I believe in a participatory approach to development where the people and the government come together and work for the development of a particular sector.
A: Where does the funding come from?
TS: It is all voluntary; we are not paying anyone anything.
A: What about issues such as landscaping, planting, maintaining security and salaries; they all require funding.
TS: The Sindh Government have an Annual Development Plan (ADP), whereby new initiatives are identified and are sent for approval. If the Advisory Board or the Community Committees make recommendations that we think are doable, we can ask for their inclusion in the ADP.
A: These Committees are voluntary and depend on the knowledge and interest of the members. However, is it not important to develop expertise within the Department itself, in order to secure the long-term sustainability of your initiatives?
TS: I cannot have an expert in every galli or mohallah. It is a shortcoming I recognise. For the time being, the solution is the Advisory Board. We are also talking to various groups who can provide basic knowledge and training to our gardeners. I am very aware that our gardeners need to be taught and trained and that is one of my main priorities.
A: Who would impart this training?
TS: The Horticultural Society of Pakistan is willing; the corporate sector is willing, as are a number of individuals who have the required expertise. We will have to look at the financial aspect – whether it can be voluntary or not. The details are yet to be decided – I have only been here a month. But it is a major priority that the gardeners are trained in horticulture, because they will be here for another 20 or 25 years. So in terms of strategy, firstly, we want to be participatory in our approach, open our doors and involve the public and secondly, we want to improve our human resources. Clearly, it will not work if the committees do everything and our gardeners are not trained.
A: How many gardeners does the KMC employ?
TS: About 600 to 700 gardeners.
A: Is that sufficient?
TS: There are about 400 posts that are vacant and yes, we have a shortage, but I cannot wait for these slots to be occupied. What I am doing in the meantime is to increase their efficiency; if that increases, my output will increase manifold. I am working on those lines.
A: How are the gardeners selected?
TS: They have been appointed since 2009 and 2010. I am not aware of the process but I am sure there is a standard process.
A: Gardening is a specialised field that requires passion and dedication – and most of all respect. Most people employed as gardeners in Pakistan are low wage earners. To ensure sustainability, is there not a need to improve their salaries and upgrade their status in order to motivate them to learn and improve?
TS: This is a problem and yes, they are lower grade positions, but I have to make the best of what I have. I cannot change the situation overnight. I think things will improve because there is much more awareness in terms of the need for a greener culture and of climate change. As I said, I have only been here a month, so what I can do in the short-term is to increase their efficiency. When I expressed my interest in their work, I was pleasantly surprised to see their response. They are willing to work but their skill set needs improving. My priority at the moment is to ensure that I efficiently manage whatever means I have available. I cannot do much about their pay, but I can make efforts to train them and improve their capacity.
A: Are all KMC parks open to the public free of charge?
TS: Only two of our parks charge an entry fee of Rs 20; Aunty Park and Beach View Park. The rest are free.
A: Why is it that several parks and green spaces across Karachi do not come under KMC management?
TS: The bigger parks (10 to 12 acres) come under KMC management; neighbourhood parks come under DMC (District Municipal Corporation). Then there is Cantonment, DHA land, KDA land and KPT land – and they do not come under KMC. It is a complicated system and there are a lot of grey lines. It is confusing for an outsider, but that is how it is and we have to work within what falls in our remit. Having said this, a substantial part of Karachi comes under the KMC, enough to make a start on making Karachi green.
A: Another issue is that because of the neglect from the competent authorities, a number of well-intentioned individuals have taken it upon themselves to develop green spaces that for various reasons eventually prove to be unsustainable.
TS: I am trying to change this. My message is that people have to start to trust the government; that is the long and the short of it. My message is that in whatever efforts you make, involve us and let us help you. We have the human resources and we will assist in whatever way we can. I have been in touch with the Urban Forest Scheme and similar initiatives across Karachi and extended my full support. We want to join hands with these initiatives and try and develop a sort of umbrella system. The government alone cannot do it, individuals alone cannot do it. It has to be a combined effort.
A: Will this also mean putting a stop to random projects popping up suddenly here and there, without any depth of expertise or planning?
TS: Absolutely, but this can only happen if the government is aware of these initiatives. For example, someone starts planting trees without knowing that the area has been marked for a development project and then suddenly all these planting efforts go to waste. To avoid this, people should approach us with their ideas and if, for whatever reason, it is not feasible to plant in a specific space we will point them to other spaces that are more suitable. My objective is to encourage people to come and consult us so that their initiatives see fruition and are sustainable.
A: Is water a challenge?
TS: It is; we use treated sewerage water mostly and we have to constantly manage water availability.
A: Do you plan to introduce new techniques to promote efficient water management?
TS: Yes, we are working with the Institute of Business Management on this. For example, there are specific soil compositions which can reduce water usage by one tenth. We definitely need to make informed decisions based on technical advice in terms of the most efficient soil mix, what to plant and how much to water. This is the third leg of my strategy; to use the resources I have in terms of water and plants in the most efficient way possible. Once we are able to use our resources to the maximum and with maximum efficiency, we can then approach the government for more funds. First we have to look inwards, make sure we are on the right track and are performing at optimal level; only then will we be able to spread our wings. Otherwise, the government and civil society will not trust us in terms of how we are going to improve the functioning of my department. I do not have a magic wand to change everything overnight, but small steps can make a difference and hopefully someone will carry on from there.
A: What are your plans for nursery development?
TS: I have put my Deputy Director in charge of nursery development, because we have a lot of spaces available to do this. The government is also interested in this as part of their Billion Tree Tsunami project. One of the issues with nurseries is that you need sweet water; sewerage water will not do. So wherever we can access sweet water, we will start a nursery. I am hoping to increase the number from the existing three to about 25 in the next six months or so.
A: Who would buy from these nurseries?
TS: The KMC. These nurseries will save us the cost of buying seedlings from the market; they will also improve our in-house capability to service the parks and green spaces we are in charge of.
A: What are your plans in terms of flower shows?
TS: Flower shows were part of KMC’s past legacy; for example, the All Pakistan Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Show was discontinued and we have been instructed by the Administrator to revive it. We are also planning a Marigold Flower Show in December and next March the All Pakistan Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Show. These are the baby steps we are taking to regain lost ground and see what we can do further.
A: Will your tenure as DG Parks be long enough to see your vision through?
TS: Tenures are usually about three years, although even one or two years are considered to be good tenures if the short-term goals can be fulfilled and the long-term ones put into motion. My goal is to ensure that what we do will be sustainable and does not revert to zero. It is a big challenge.
Taha Saleem was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig. For feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org