Screaming for help - Babar Sattar - Saturday, March 12, 2011

Source :

The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.

In 2009, our prime minister formed Pakistan Education Taskforce to help implement the PPP-led regime’s new education policy. The taskforce website states that its creation “signals a renewed commitment by the government of Pakistan to deliver on policy pledges and to be held accountable for bringing about change.” Curiously, this official taskforce has just released a frighteningly candid report entitled Education Emergency Pakistan 2011 – March for Education that lists hard facts indicting the federal government and each provincial government for breach of Article 25A of the Constitution.

True to its mandate, the taskforce report audits the state of education in Pakistan, documents the ruling regime’s failure to deliver on policy pledges and implicitly identifies lack of capable leadership to account for the state of emergency in the realm of education that is quickly degenerating into a self-inflicted disaster.

March for Education, the report released by this taskforce, is mind-blowing. It is mind-blowing because it tells you how it really is: that “no country will ever enjoy security or robust economic growth without quality education,” and that the “education emergency in Pakistan is now a threat to Pakistan’s survival.” It is mind-blowing because it breaks tradition from fact-creation and fact-fudging to make the incumbent government look good.

The report highlights that Pakistan emerges as runner-up amongst all countries of the world for housing the most out-of-school children. In other words, one-tenth of the kids across the whole wide world out of school at the moment reside in Pakistan. The report tells us that “at least 7 million children are not in primary schools and 3 million will never see the inside of a classroom,” that two out of three children between ages 6-16 living across Pakistan’s vast rural areas cannot read a story, and that one out of three of all rural women have never attended school.

The quality of education can be gauged by the fact that of those lucky enough to see the inside of a school, at least 50 percent cannot read a single sentence. The report concludes that the chances of Pakistan meeting UN’s Millennium Development Goals related to education (that form part of our international obligations) are about “zero”.

Instead of identifying insurmountable problems confronting the government in an effort to justify the government’s lack of progress in securing the future generations of Pakistan, this report reveals that at least 26 countries poorer than Pakistan send more kids to primary school than us. It tells us that a failing bigger than not investing sufficient resources in education is squandering the limited resources that we do inject into our moth-eaten public school system. And at the same time, it also points out that “with the right policies measurable improvements can be delivered in two years” and with success breeding success the educational landscape can be transformed in a decade.

The taskforce that put together March for Education includes eminent individuals representing the federal and provincial governments, the government of UK, donor agencies as well as the civil society.

Led by Shahnaz Wazir Ali, members of the taskforce serving in government include men of acclaim such as Athar Tahir (Secretary Education) and Shahid Kardar (Governor State Bank), women of distinction such as MNA Nafisa Shah (National Commission on Human Development) and Dr Saba Khattak (Member Planning Commission), influential bureaucrats such as Salman Siddique (Chairman FBR and previously Secretary Finance) together with all provincial education secretaries. And thus the taskforce report is mind-blowing most of all because despite having been prepared under supervision of those directly responsible for policy and fiscal planning within the federal government, it seems to be screaming for help from God knows who.

American comedian Fred Allen famously described a committee as “a group of men who individually can do nothing, but as a group decide that nothing can be done”. While completely appreciative of the content of the report and the desperate need to collate information to shake policymakers out of complacency, what is the average citizen expected to do when policymakers themselves declare that the country is in a state of educational emergency due to insufficient facilities to cater to schooling needs and the disaster will grow further if significant public financial resources imperative to stem the rot are not urgently committed?

Or can it be that after exhausting all their influence within the echelons of power in trying to secure the citizens’ constitutional right to free school education without success, this report is a desperate cry of policy insiders seeking help from all and sundry ahead of the upcoming budget?

If March for Education is a cry for help, it is most certainly meant for the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The report acknowledges that right to education is a fundamental human right since the 18th Amendment and Article 25A of the Constitution requires the state to provide “free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.” The report then concedes the following: “At current rate of progress, full primary enrollment may not be achieved before mid-century... Pakistan is even further from its constitutional duty to provide all child7ren an education up to the age of 16, with only 23 percent enrollment in secondary school... Today around 25 million children are denied this justiciable right... Under a business-as-usual scenario, Pakistan risks no achieving universal education to the age of 16 in the lifetime of anyone who is alive today”.

As a legal matter, we know that since April 19, 2010, the state of Pakistan is under the mandatory constitutional obligation to ensure that each citizen between the age of five and 16 gets educated free of cost. As a factual matter, we know that the state is presently denying such right to at least 25 million children across the country.

The federal and provincial governments have taken no steps to promulgate laws to give effect to the fundamental right to education. And compounding crimes of omission with those of commission, March for Education tells us that the financial allocations for education are receding even further: “Pakistan is committed to spending at least 4 percent of GDP on education, but budgets have fallen in recent years... The picture grows bleaker when one looks at actual expenditures with some provinces spending as little as 60 percent of their education budgets last year.”

The report estimates that while the state needs to commit Rs 100 billion to provide education for all five to 16 year olds and discharge its obligation under Article 25A of the Constitution, the money presently going to public schools is less than the subsidy afforded to PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills and PEPCO.

For a minute, let us forget how shameful or imprudent the policies and fiscal priorities of successive military and civilian governments have been, and focus instead on the law alone. Our apex court derives its famed suo moto powers from Article 184(3) of the Constitution, which states that, “the Supreme Court shall, if it considers that a question of public importance with reference to the enforcement of any of the fundamental rights is involved, have the power to make an order of the nature mentioned in the said Article.”

Can one think up a question of public importance more significant and pressing than upholding the fundamental right to education of the most vulnerable 25 million citizens across Pakistan, who might then be able to secure for themselves their right to liberty, dignity and livelihood?


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