The Illeterati

Rabia is 9 years old – a short, bubbly, full-of-life child. She is the daughter of Rukhsana, our domestic help. Rukhsana brings Rabia along every day, and in most houses, she goes about cleaning floors, wiping counters, and washing dishes. In our house, my mother sits her to one side, and teaches her basic Urdu, English and mathematics, and knowing my mother, that is not a walk in the park either. Rukhsana doesn’t mind, as long as her studies don’t interfere with her work.tft-7-p-2-g

There is something very wrong with this picture. Her mother should mind if work interferes with her education, not the other way around. Rabia should be in school, not on her hands and knees scrubbing toilets. But such is the reality of Pakistan, where 60.3% of the population lives on less than $2 (200 rupees) a day, according to Pakistan’s Human Development Index.

World Bank data states that Pakistan has a 74% enrollment rate in primary schools, yet only 56% are literate between ages 15 and 24. This implies two things. First, nearly half of our adult population cannot read or write, and there is a serious need to address the 18% dropout rate between primary education and adult literacy.

Pakistan spends 1.9% of its GDP on education, when experts suggest that a country should spend at least 4% of its GDP to educate its citizens. Of course, the reality is much more complicated than that, as even the 1.9% is not being spent efficiently and effectively, but this does not negate the fact that Pakistan is in the bottom eight of countries in the world in terms of education spending.

The 18th Amendment Act, in effect since April 19, 2010 includes Article 25A:

Right to Education: The State shall 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 problem, of course is that this has been implemented in letter, but never in spirit, and certainly not in any practical terms. There are three sides that we should consider here, legal, operational, and definitional.

First, the legal.

Article 25A makes it compulsory for the state to provide free education to all children between the ages of 5 and 16. Since the devolution of powers into the provinces, this law must now be adopted at the provincial level, and implemented as such.

In Azad Kashmir, FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan, this is still pending, no work has been done to pass the Right to Education (RTE) law.

Islamabad Capital Territory’s Compulsory Education Act was passed by the Senate and National Assembly, and signed by the President on December 12, 2012, but is dependent for implementation on the “Rules of Business” which still needs to be put together.

Balochistan had never before seen any legislation on education, but approved the Ordinance on Free and Compulsory Education in 2013. However, the implementation of the ordinance is once again dependent on the “Rules of Business” which still needs to be formulated.

Sindh has passed the Compulsory Education Bill of 2013, and ratified by the Governor. However, a year after passing the act, there are no “Rules of Business”.

Punjab and KPK, provinces that have separately declared “education emergencies”, are ironically still in the draft stages of the RTE bill, a full four years after it was passed via the 18th amendment. Punjab formulated Punjab Education Commission, which worked and deliberated on the issue for almost three years, came up with a draft law last year but was never presented on the floor of the house.  Punjab has now drafted a new bill on RTE, with no link to the last draft on which they worked for three years, which has been presented to the cabinet for approval, so we may expect a legislation on this soon.

The implementation of these laws, in a lot of cases, is the next step, and dependent on the Rule of Business, which, if left unformulated, would effectively render the passed laws inert, as they cannot be implemented in any meaningful manner. Legally, we seem to be at a standstill. And that is the foundational step, that will pave the way for everything else.

Second, the operational.

There are 5,125,373 children out of primary schools. An estimated 25 million children are out of schools overall. Imagine the stories you hear, the images you see of dilapidated school buildings, of students with umbrellas studying in the pouring rain, or the scorching sun. Imagine an unregulated 1.35 million strong teacher workforce, a full 200,000 of which don’t even show up to work, and imagine a student teacher ratio of 41:1.

Now imagine shoving another 25 million children into that system.

Even in provinces where significant progress has been made on the RTE bills, there seems to be a significant disconnect from reality in terms of the operational guidelines for how to strive toward the 100% enrollment target. Will we enroll primary school children only? If yes, we clearly do not have space for them, so will we need to expand schools, or build new ones, staff them, provide basic facilities. And even then, within a few years, those children will graduate on to middle school, and we will need to provide the same facilities there. This is just one branching example of the debacle, the absolute catastrophe that faces us, but no one is willing to address.

Passing a bill is well and good. The real question is how we go about implementing it at the operational level. We need to carefully study the current situation, draw a roadmap, and leave enough room for maneuverability. This is a massive, unprecedented task, and no one seems to be willing to talk about it.

Finally, the definitional.

Free education sounds great on paper, perhaps enveloping the lawmakers in a warm, fuzzy blanket of feelings. However, “free” has not been clearly defined at any stage, in any legislation, in any location. What does free mean exactly? Does it mean free books and bags? Does it mean free stationary and copies? Does it mean free uniforms, and transportation to and from schools?

Moreover, does the term “free” apply to the children or the concept of education on the whole? Schools have to pay electrical, gas and water bills, heavily taxed, and this money goes right back into the government coffers. Does free mean schools will be exempt from bills and taxation? There is an entire economy of exams (more on this in a future piece), that costs the state a fortune in all sorts of examinations all year. Does free mean those exams, and associated costs of paper, ink, printing, monitoring will be free?

The term free is loose, idealistic, and if implied in its truest form, completely unrealistic. Lawmakers need to carefully evaluate the language in which these bills are being passed, and define each term to ensure implementation is not held up by lack of parameters or definitions, such as the ever-elusive “Rules of Business”, which seems to have stalled legislation in four separate cases now.

There is a very real, very present education emergency in Pakistan. Mired in one international scandal or another, the media, the lawmakers and even the general population seems highly distracted from a problem that threatens to shatter our very core. We have the people, the tools and the brainpower to meet this challenge head on, and work towards a solution. All we need is the willpower of those with the power to do something about it.

From The Friday Times, March 28, 2014