Dhaka, Bangladesh
Remedy for all ills

Remedy for all ills

By Tasneem Noorani

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan needs to be as focused on education as Nawaz Sharif was on motorways, if he wants a naya Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif, with his fixation on motorways, got so carried away that, rather than going up, the literacy rate in the country has regressed from 60 percent to 58 percent, as announced by the education minister Shafqat Mahmood a few days back. The tragedy is that, according to Unesco's Global Education Monitoring Report, literacy amongst those 15 years and older is 57 percent in Pakistan, 73 percent in Bangladesh and 92 percent in Sri Lanka. Added to this is the shame, if one has the sensitivity to feel it, that Bangladesh where literacy figures were worse than ours when we parted, is 15 percent ahead of us and by effect the population growth rate is half ours. They have to feed and clothe some 30 million to 35m less people than us. All this is due to education and the empowerment of women. The education status of our women is reflected in recent newspaper headlines which stated that '79 percent girls quit primary schools in tribal districts' with North Waziristan having the highest dropout rate. The report based on the findings of the Education Management Information System reveals that only one in five girls who is enrolled will stay till class five in the seven districts of the erstwhile Fata and that in the last nine years, the number of teachers has declined from 20,709 to 18,621. Most schools don't have electricity, water, toilets or furniture. Our local rulers will say that this state of affairs is due to local customs where education is not given priority. Does that tell the whole story? Residents of Fata are among the most cosmopolitan and business- savvy people in the country, owning businesses all over the world. Can we blame a little girl for 'running away' from school, when she is expected not to relieve herself until she gets home, because there is no toilet in the school, or study in dark classrooms in the winter and be without fans in the summer because there is no electricity? Most of us living in the more peaceful and prosperous parts of Pakistan would not even bother to read further than these headlines, having been familiar with them and thinking that the problem is far from home. Little do we realise that by spending trillions on motorways rather than education, we have reduced the journey time from these deprived areas and their unhappy and often violent inhabitants to our homes by a few hours. To add fuel to the fire, we are 'flaunting' our prosperity and affluence in these deprived areas daily, through scores of TV channels and social media. On a constant basis we are rubbing salt into their wounds and hoping to continue with our blissful world unassailed. This dichotomy in education facilities for the poor and the rich and the great gap in the quality of education is a recipe for civil war. If we continue to focus on our current needs and neglect the long term, simply because the investment in education may not bear fruit within the five-year tenure of government, we will continue to lag behind our neighbours. Large sums of money need to be poured into education so that government schools become the bests spots in the village, where children prefer to spend their time rather than at home, where teaching is the most prestigious and lucrative job, and where students are given meals to attract them to come to school and stay longer. Talking of internal security we see that we have stopped monitoring the progress of NAP because there is relative peace and the incidence of terror attacks has gone down. One hears that the government is contemplating a new action plan. All the points of the action plan were a good laundry list for agencies of the government to keep all angles of national security on their radar. Points like mainstreaming madressahs, preventing hate speech, keeping an eye on them and regulating what is taught in the schools and seminaries are all necessary to stop extremism. This is an ongoing process and we cannot afford to relent. Similarly, there is a belated effort to focus on population control initiated by the chief justice. The government's response, other than the prime minister attending the seminar on family planning, seems tentative. But here again the best-proven method to control population is educating girls. A UN study through empirical evidence finds that the number of years of education a girl gets is inversely proportional to the number of children she will have. So if with two years' of education a woman has eight children, with three years' education she will have seven children, and so on. The only hope of a naya Pakistan we have is if the PTI government finds the extra resources, time and political will for education.

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