Shoaib Sultan Khan. A man of the people and one who worked for the people, from the grassroots to the halls of bureaucracy.

It was a stint as UNICEF’s social development consultant in Sri Lanka in the Mahaweli Ganga project that got him a full page mention in Newsweek in an article “A Man Named Khan”. That was over 30 years ago. An elephant infested country, he recalls, but the earnest man that he was, he stayed in the villages often. It was then that the Aga Khan Foundation asked him to take up a project in Gilgit in Pakistan. He got the Aga Khan to persuade UNICEF to fund it. On December 1, 1982, when his flight to Gilgit didn’t take off, he drove the 600 odd km there in a jeep which was lying unused.

When I met Shoaib Sultan Khan in Islamabad, I didn’t expect to hear such a fascinating life story from a bureaucrat who tried to use his powers to do something for the poor and is known by communities both in India and Pakistan. His biography is a tome by Noel Cossins - Man in the Hat and his own memories will fill several volumes. He prefers to be 82, though his real age is 80, he laughs and that was to do with some familiar date of birth issues in school.

Khan’s journey began in 1958 as assistant commissioner in Comilla district in then East Pakistan where he met his mentor Akhtar Hameed Khan, head of the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development. Hameed Khan asked him to follow three simple principles used in Germany by Friedrich Raiiffeissen - get the oppressed peasants to organize and identify a leadership and then acquire the capacity to acquire capital, have savings and upgrade human skills. That conceptual package revolutionized Germany and to some extent that’s what happened in Andhra Pradesh in 1995, he says. Even the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (now Building Resources Across Communities -BRAC) came out of this simple concept.”What we called the Comilla Approach took ten years to implement and the Michigan state University published a book on this – Rural Development in Action in 1963,” he adds.

He used to preside over the court in the Brahmanbaria subdivision in Comilla where one day five young civil services students appeared before him with instructions to shadow his work and see the field conditions – and also make notes on how the training for government services should be revamped. If Khan was surprised he didn’t show it and he didn’t know that this was the work of his mentor whom he had never met till a fateful train journey.

In those days people walked everywhere and there was only one Green Arrow train from Chittagong to Dacca. In his first class coupe there was an impressive man who told young Shoaib that he had passed his test with flying colours. That was Akhtar Hameed Khan and he persuaded the government to create a cadre of special officers in each district and also a post of additional deputy commissioner development, a mantle which was to fall on Shoaib’s shoulders.

But as a young man with a family, Shoaib came back to Pakistan in 1961 as deputy commissioner, Peshawar. He visited Comilla in 1970 and went back to his old Brahmanbaria subdivision. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. Akhtar Hameed Khan had said that the British were good administrators but it was law and order oriented. You had to identify a viable unit of administration for development and a district and a sub-division are not viable for development. That’s when he hit on the idea of why the British developed the police thana. The British demarcated it so that the station house officer could go to the farthest point and return the same day. In that symbol of law and order he put up the symbol of development. Soon a thana training and development centre was set up in all 410 thanas of East Pakistan. Each thana had 25 government departments and it was a majestic complex.”

So people who needed to know about development programmes could go back the same day and the government would be able to raise an army of barefoot workers. Travelling through his old subdivision, he saw rich paddy fields which earlier yielded 15 maunds per acre - now it was 60 to 70 maunds since the farmers were able to access technical education and inputs and the wretchedness had given way to prosperity.

He was later made commissioner of Karachi but the government of Sindh abolished the post after a rather peculiar intervention by an infamous politician, who was upset at the powers that a commissioner had and not he as a Governor of a province. It was then that he asked for directorship of the Pakistan Academy for Rural Development at Peshawar and that was when he adopted the Daudzai programme which became a milestone. However, there were forces at work against the programme and he was even accused of subversion at one point. His political patron former Governor and minister Hyat Sherpao was killed in a blast – and disillusioned with the civil service he quit to take up several UN assignments and finally landed in India in 1994.

The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme has an ongoing programme not only in Gilgit but in other parts of Pakistan much of it documented in his book “A Journey through Grassroots Development.” He used to walk everywhere in the mountainous Gilgit region till the Aga Khan gave him a helicopter. Distances which used to take several painful hours could be reached in five minutes, he says shaking his head at the memory- it seemed such a miracle at that time. Till of course, his “ cowboy pilot” crashed the helicopter!

As he leaves for India this week- he hopes to reconnect with several people- and he has a 20 year friendship with former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s secretary Venugopal without whom he wouldn’t have been able to visit India as advisor to the UNDP South Asia Poverty Alleviation Project in Andhra Pradesh in 1994 or conduct the programme devised with his consultation. “I wouldn’t have come to India otherwise and it was he who found K Raju for me,” smiles Khan. After many fits and starts Raju was chosen as national coordinator of the poverty alleviation programme from 1996 to 2000 and that’s when he made many trips to Pakistan. It’s a continuing legacy that Khan hopes to strengthen while in Andhra Pradesh.