ZEBA AZHAR - Director DGTR Pakistan Customs A Force to Reckon With

A Force to Reckon With

"Life does not always permit you to tread upon a profession or route of your choosing. Allah has already decided a path for everyone,” Zeba tells me how she came to make a career in a field that predominantly comprises of men. “I entered into an early marriage, I was just 18 at the time, and I conceived my first child the next year while I was still doing my intermediate,” she continues to tell me about the kind of life she faced in her late teens to early adulthood. Having been married to her “first cousin who was the only child hence, pampered and accustomed to extra comfortable lifestyle”.

Lack of compatibility made the marriage meet its ultimate, and perhaps expected, ending in a divorce. Zeba had a son to fend for and being a single parent, longed to do something that would bring her status and respect in society and from her son, alike. She has “seen many hardships in life” but none seem to have rewarded her this greatly. “When you have a cushioned life and don’t face any of the harsh realities of life, it never occurs to you to make an effort and make something of yourself. Once you get a taste of the hardships, you realise that there is a lot that you should prepare yourself for. My early experiences created a pathway for me, leading me to where I am today,” Zeba credits, among other things, her desire to give her now 25-year-old son a comfortable life and make him proud to be a driving force behind her achievements. An over achiever from the get-go, she recalls topping all her classes not letting any difficulty get in her way, not even her asthma. “I remember, when I was in grade 3 my Urdu teacher had said to me, ‘beta meri ek baat yaad rakhna, tumhara naam ek din akhbar main aayega’,” lets on the St. Joseph’s Convent alumni. But Zeba was not all work and no play as a kid; she describes herself as an incredibly artistic, confident and well-spoken girl growing up who represented her class even in art exhibitions. Continuing her tradition, she topped her B.A exams, as well. “I secured the second spot in Sindh when I gave my [CSS] exams and 20th spot among 175 shortlisted candidates from all over Pakistan,” she proudly states. She further continues to share that the Chairman of the Federal Public Service Commission of Pakistan, Justice (retd) Zafar Hussain Mirza and other Chief Secretaries part of the interviewing committee had given her the liberty to reconsider, as she was ideally suited for both, District Management Group and Foreign Service but she remained adamant on going into Customs, behind which there was another obvious reason.

“I told them that my father was in Customs and I have always admired him. None of my siblings took after him, so I wish to follow his footsteps,” Zeba mentions her father who passed away last year, Mr Bashir Ahmed, ex officer of Customs, as her biggest inspiration. She taps into her memories with him and affectionately narrates, “As a child, I would hold his finger and walk around airports and east and west wharfs. I remember the excitement in me when I would see huge ships carrying books docking. He had a very charismatic personality himself and was definitely my role model.” Speaking of whom, she also mentions a few role models she came across during her 21 years of service. “I have had the opportunity to work with some very hard-working, diligent, honest, meticulous and professional officers from whom I picked up all their good qualities and tried to imbibe those in my personality.” As the obvious minority in the field, it is almost understandable for her to have faced gender bias, but she rubbishes all such notions. “I carved out a place for myself on the basis of my hard work, attitude and behaviour with my colleagues.” Zeba also notes that the reason she has flourished and grown professionally is that she has found colleagues who have been amazingly supportive and appreciative. But she got there slowly and steadily. “When I entered Customs I was undergoing specialised training which is supposed to last for eight months. But there was dire shortage of officers, as Sales Tax department used to be a part of Customs at the time. Mine was the biggest batch recruited, of about 30 officers, and we started our field work after only two months of training,” she reveals and continues, “I was serving as an Assistant Collector and was asked to initiate a file but I didn’t know how to. So I wrote a one-page, very well-worded write-up for my boss. I opened it with ‘Dear Sir’ and submitted it. He called me to his office and started laughing out loud. He told me one doesn’t file a government document like so and starts with ‘Kindly refer to’ instead.” She gives out a hearty laugh, but also clarifies that the job brings with it its fair share of risks, as well.

“I was working under Ramzan Bhatti sahab in Collectorate of Sales Tax. We were informed that there was an importer who was not paying tax under the pretext that his earnings were far below the threshold needed to bring him under the taxpayer bracket. We got hold of the import profile and got to know that he was actually importing materials worth crores of rupees,” Zeba recounts one of the tricky cases she worked on that might have cost her everything. “We traced down the address of the unit and I reached there with my team to find the place full of huge generators everywhere. There was a group of Pathan gang staying there who told me that they are not at liberty to give out any information and that their boss resides in Peshawar. My Collector advised me to serve him a notice demanding a meeting, as Customs needed to conduct an investigation.” After the man tried to stall the inquiry even more, Zeba and her team were finally able to bring him in with the help of Customs Intelligence. She recalls reaching home at four in the morning and as she gets ready to sleep, an explosive noise makes her jump out of her bed. “Windows of my room had shattered and shards of glass covered the floor. The windscreen of my car had met a similar fate. My parents came running to my room and found me taking refuge in a corner under the blanket, I was so scared. We discovered that somebody had thrown a huge stone at my car and room. I couldn’t make any other connection with this incident other than that I had just picked up a shady character for tax fraud,” deduces the iron lady of Customs.

Transferred to Directorate General of Training and Research (DGTR) just last year, her colleagues credit Zeba with being involved into everything from course designing to books’ selection in order to bring improvements in the training department. “Through FBR, I liaise with International Organisations, like World Customs Organisation (WCO), United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and others. Since, internationally there is an inclination towards Trade Facilitation, I have endeavoured to incorporate topics that are recognised on WCO platform for being part of training,” says the Director. With multiple groups undergoing different specialized trainings in the old Custom House building in Karachi as we speak, Zeba doesn’t have a moment to spare but she tries to find sweet moments of release through her job. “Had I not given competitive exams, I would either have been a psychiatrist, artist or an interior designer. I had major inclination towards these fields,” she says pointing out that she has recently renovated a huge library on her floor. A true inspiration for young girls and women today, she advices them to become someone who men should look up to, and not be someone who is dependent on men. “I read this quote somewhere and it has stayed with me – A successful woman is one who builds a strong foundation from the bricks thrown at her,” says the youngest of six siblings and a Libran by birth and at heart, staying true to her hallmark by balancing different areas of life and work immaculately.•