Imagine a primary school with no building, a school where teachers and children have to sit in sizzling heat and there is no electricity, where school children have no toilet, where they have no drinking water, and think of the majority of children of the dispossessed. Now you would not be surprised over harsh attitude of the primary schools teachers of what are called the “peela (yellow) schools” or over the high dropout rate of the children enrolled in these schools.
Last Monday the presentation of the Deputy Education Adviser of the Ministry of Education T.M. Qureshi made us imagine these harsh realities. Speaking at the Consultative Workshop on Education organised by UNDP and Ministry of Finance in Islamabad for preparing the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper II, Qureshi said that 70% of the government schools were without electricity, 54% without toilets, 45% without drinking water, 41% without the boundary wall and 13% are without a building. Mr. Asif Bajwa, Additional Secretary Finance summed it up: “We all have to be ashamed of this.”
Yes my head hangs in shame thinking about the state of these schools. And because the schools my children went to had beautiful environment and well-trained teacher. If the schools are good and teachers are not out to punish the children, some time physically also, a child likes to go to school. After listening to the presentation of Qureshi I don’t think we have to guess why almost 45% children dropout of the primary schools and only 30% go to the secondary stage. In the first place the government figures show that 86% children get enrolled in the primary schools that means 14% have never been to school. Add another 45% of those who drop out before completing their primary education. This roughly means that almost half the children of the country are illiterate. Isn’t that pathetic?
Thus the biggest challenge for the government on the education front is how to retain the children who get enrolled in the schools. To meet this challenge missing basic amenities should be urgently provided. The government should put its priorities right. Building palatial houses for speaker and cantonments should be the last on the priority list. Mr. Bajwa says that the government has provided around Rs 15 billion in the last two years to provide for such missing facilities in the social sector. Though this report was published by the newspapers many times, the reaction of provincial bureaucracy was as if it they have heard it for the first time.
We have to provide good environment to the teachers and the students if we do not want the children to run away from schools. The primary teachers in most of the primary schools need to be trained and made accountable to the parents. This requires involvement of the community. A number of schools run by the NGOs in poor urban localities and rural areas have far better student retention rate and decent environment because they involve the community. As the dropout children are usually from the poorest segment of the society they are mal-nourished also. The Indian scheme to provide one cooked meal to the school going children has raised their attendance. It would be good idea to learn from this example.
In spite of all the lip service to the importance of education by successive government the literacy rate in Pakistan crawled up by 0.5% in the first three decades and in the last two decades by one percent. This slow growth has resulted in a situation that we have over 50 million illiterates in the country at present among the people who are above 10 years age. There is also a serious gender disparity and rural-urban misbalance.
The present government has increased expenditure on education to 2.1% of the GDP, which in real term is substantial because the size of the GDP has been revised in the last few years from 60 billion dollars to almost 125 billion. But still it is a long way to go as the government is committed at home, at UN and at SAARC forums to double the social sector budget as percentage of GDP. However, going at the present rate it seems that we will miss all the social sector MDGs 2015 targets.
National Reconstruction Bureau member, Mr. Inam-ul-Haq, is hopeful that things will improve in the social sector because now the local governments have been given full control on government schools and health facilities. NRB Consultant Mr. Riaz Khan says that the dismal condition of the schools and basic health facilities at the grass root level was mainly because of the failure of the delivery system. Simply speaking it means inefficiency of the old bureaucratic system. But now that the new system of local government has been in place for the last five years, the big question is: is there any improvement? If not then where we do go from here?
Number of provincial bureaucrats, who attended the consultative workshop on health, pointed out that the priorities of many local government representatives are much different. Nazims have slashed the social sector budgets drastically. In one local council the medicine budget was chopped from Rs 500,000 to just Rs 100,000. Their allegation was that ‘Nazimisation of development’ has led to transfer of funds to expenditure on high-profile infrastructure projects. There was also a tongue-in-cheek reference to ‘Nazim’s interest in projects where contractors are involved.’ Or, that Nazims’ development decisions are political. Mr. Haq aptly pointed out that while we all agree that democracy is the only answer to our problems, we are usually contemptuous about politics. He admitted that local government system cannot remain completely incorruptible “in the ocean of corruption.” The issue is that the word politics has been made synonymous with plunder by the civil & military bureaucracy in Pakistan and unwittingly the journalists play in their hands.
I think the devolution is a right step. If today provincial and federal bureaucracy and politicians are alleging that local governments are corrupt, the question is was the previous system run by the honest. No sir! we have seen corruption there also. One has to accept that local leaders are usually more accountable and accessible to their constituent. Perhaps that is the reason that 70% local government representatives from the previous set up lost election this time. So dear countrymen, give the new system a chance to evolve. No system in any country was born perfect. After a few elections this would work much better than the centralized system of the past. Isn’t it working in most functional democracies?