Only ten miles of off-roading from the main Sajawal town, the dusty uneven ‘kutcha’ track leads you to a cluster of villages where the clocks stopped ticking a few centuries back. Amongst these small and rickety thatched huts, one comes across a four room brick and cement structure that stands out as the most prominent land mark of these remote hamlets. The contents and functions of this structure are deeply linked to the future of Pakistan. It is the nucleus around which every thinking Pakistani spends endless hours of discourse. It is considered as the ultimate recipe, the path to salvation, the highest priority, a fundamental right and the only remedy to all our ills. This building is a Government Primary School – the key to the struggle for a better Pakistan.
We decided to take a closer look. This was not one of those structures which fell under the definitions of “ghost schools”. It was also not one of those that have suddenly been discovered as ‘non-viable’ schools. It was a regular functioning school open to all the children of the five villages in the immediate vicinity. It was a school that is alive and active in the government ledgers. A school that has a budget, teacher, salaries and maintenance expenses. A classic representative sample of an average rural school of Pakistan. The school has five classes and one teacher. While in the surrounding villages there are at least 1000 eligible children who could have been possibly studying in this school, the actual number of enrolled students was only 69. Of these,38 were present and 29 absent. The school may as well not have been there.
The class room black board provides a crisp summary of the state of education in Pakistan. 32 children are enrolled in class one. These children are the first ones to discover the utter uselessness of what they are exposed to and half of them decide to drop out every time they are moved up to the next class. So from 32 in class one, the number of students keeps dropping to 16, 9, 7 and 3 by the time they reach class 5. The fact that 67 children out of 1000 decide to visit the school and only 3 make it to class 5 may be shocking but not unusual in the rural areas of Sindh. To collect this data, one does not need a World Bank loan or a glossy report by an obscenely high paid consultant. Randomly walk into any rural village government school and discover a consistent pattern of utter wastefulness. A costly facade maintained by billions of rupees of donors’ as well as tax payers’ money. Clearly the education budget does not go towards education. It is consumed by a bottomless pit of an unimaginably incompetent machinery.
The sole education provider of the school, teacher ‘DG’ was interviewed along with his ageing father. The father had only one complaint against the son. “On most days he does not go to the school and keeps hanging around”. The reason was obvious. ‘DG’, the teacher is addicted to heavy doses of ‘gutka’ and finds it difficult to frequently open his mouth. Any conversation is subject to first jettisoning the large volume of the addictive red liquid. He has no interest, inclination or ability to teach, much less to inspire a child. His monthly salary is guaranteed. Considering the distress he is capable of causing, perhaps he does a great favour to the children by not turning up too frequently. The village folks, however ignorant they might appear, seem to have grasped the pointlessness of the schooling ritual and are not keen enough to avail its dubious benefits. The only real beneficiary of this school is the teacher himself, whose effortless monthly salary supports his unending appetite for 3 loads of ‘gutka’ that he must devour each day. “Gutka”, a deadly corrosive, addictive and carcinogenic mixture of lime, ‘katha’ and tobacco, seems to have become an indispensable element of the daily intake of almost 80 percent men, women and young children of the rural population of Sindh.
While the private schools are not far better, the government schools are the ultimate disaster that Pakistan could have manufactured for itself. The ruling elite has little concern or interest in public education. Their own children do not have to suffer this torture. The Oxford educated minister of education, does not consider having fake degrees as a serious issue. The Higher Education Commission, the Election Commission, the courts and the Parliament have issued endless statements but done very little to dislodge the scores of parliamentarians who hold fake degrees. The provincial education ministries do little to influence the education process and their role seems limited to release of funds to schools – open or closed, dead or alive. Such contempt and criminal neglect of education could only multiply what we already have in plenty – strife, helplessness, crime, intolerance and poverty. Pakistan is therefore at a great risk of harm from the contents and methodology of its own thoughtless education system. A completely new approach is needed to reconstruct the existing system, whose hazards far exceed its benefits. The schooling must focus on developing rational thinking, creativity, inquisitiveness and life skills – an impossibility with the existing crop of teachers, books and bureaucrats. Beyond repair and reform, this structure needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from scratch. Is Pakistan ready to even begin a debate on how this may be achieved?
Dawn Dec 2010