April issue 2012

By | News & Politics | Published 12 years ago

“Look at these young men watering the fields, walking their cattle, mending a thatched roof; each one of them holds a college degree or something even higher,” says Dr Zia Uddin Jasra by way of introducing his village. “This nephew of mine here,” he gestures towards a youth making tea for us, “has just finished his AutoCAD from Punjab University,” he says with familial pride, making the certificate course sound like a coveted degree.

This is Peelu Vance, a village about 100 km south west of Sargodha in the central Punjab district of Khushab. Its claim to fame is its near 100% (96% to be precise) literacy, which seems all the more remarkable in comparison with the national literacy rate of 47 % for rural areas and a more abysmal district figure of around 40%. Peelu Vance, it appears, is an island of knowledge in a sea of illiteracy.

As one turns south from Khushab city, the white poplars on both sides of the narrow road give way to wild thorny bushes the size of full grown trees. Green fields are interrupted by large tracts of arid land. And human settlements begin to move away from the road, closer to the Chashma Link canal which is the sole means of sustenance for people living on the fringe of Thal desert.

In a country where all social and economic ills, even cultural maladies, are routinely blamed on the lack of education, one can’t be faulted for expecting a shiny, prosperous and well-managed Peelu Vance to rise from the sands of Thal, announcing the arrival of a literacy renaissance. Instead, what greets the visitor is a shabby and dusty village, poor in both means and vision. Just like the villages all around it.

The only difference is in the number and capacity of schools. For a population of nearly 16, 000 there are two government-run high schools in Peelu Vance, one each for boys and girls and a private high school that enrols more than 500 boys in classes one to ten. Private schools have mushroomed all over Pakistan — just as they have all over South Asia in the last decade or so — and Punjab has a fair share of these, even in the rural areas. This is the only privately run high school in the entire tehsil that comprises 72 villages. There are 24 state-run primary schools and literally dozens of schools run by the private sector. By comparison, schools in the neighbouring villages are fewer and routinely run at half their capacity or less.

Dr_Zia_Uddin_Jasra04-12What makes Peelu children hungrier for education? “It’s the parents more than the children. They are moved by competition. When your neighbours are sending their kids to school, you want to send yours to an even better one,” says Abdullah, head teacher at the private Al Huda High School.

It also explains why Akhter Javed, Dr Jasra’s nephew, had to take a certificate course for architectural drafting when his chosen business in the village is manufacturing tin boxes. He barely has 12 years of education and this was the only university course open to him. He did it not because he needed it but simply to have a university affiliation. That’s the pressure Abdullah is referring to.

Peelu Vance counts among its more accomplished sons and daughters at least a dozen judges, seven MBBS doctors and scores of teachers. Mushtaq Ilahi Dinghi is one of these icons of success. The 44-year-old additional district and sessions judge is presently posted in Jehlum. He too believes his parents motivation in sending him to law school was neighbourhood rivalry.

“I come from a rural society where litigation is considered part of life. If one family has its own lawyer or judge in the city courts, the other families will push their sons to do the same. This is why we have an unusually high number of judges coming from the same village. This is healthy competition.”

Healthy for a few families maybe, particularly, in terms of income opportunities, but given the rundown state of the village, it seems to have accrued little collective benefit from the education offered to its residents. The successful ones have made their careers in big cities, or live abroad, and maintain only a cursory relationship with their birthplace. Nevertheless, locals view their expatriate village bretherns’ more fortunate worldly progress with pride and honour. Those left behind do not grudge them; if anything, they await their own opportunity to leave the village for a more rewarding life in the city or in foreign lands.

And why not. Peelu Vance is a cul de sac for aspiring youth. A collection of modest brick houses, unpaved streets and smelly shops selling bare necessities, its open-air, fly-infested tea joint is the only place for young and old to hang out. There is no visible recreation, no scope for personal advancement, no arts and crafts, no welfare facility, and not a single doctor in the village. Our host, Dr Jasra, is not a medical doctor. The former deputy tehsil nazim (administrator) also runs the only drug store in the village, and is, therefore, the closest thing to a doctor. That’s how he got the title from the villagers who were so grateful for his prescriptions and potions.

The social fabric of Peelu Vance is as steeped in tradition and ignorance as any other village in the vicinity. The few children who don’t go to primary school, are all girls. For a majority of the older girls, high school is the end of education. Even those with the means to pursue higher education, have their career options limited to teaching, the only socially acceptable employment for women in the village. Religion is invoked in every aspect of life. And for all its education and piety, Peelu Vance has the highest crime rate in the Nurpur Thal tehsil. Police station records show that a majority of the crimes that are reported, have to do with old family feuds over land and a share of irrigation water. So what good is this education doing to village life?

Malik Mohammed Eesa is a retired headmaster. The octogenarian was the first in the village to go to college. He sees the material rise of some of the educated men and women as a fit reward of education: “These judges and doctors have a good life, their children have even better prospects and they have built expensive houses for their parents and the extended family. What more can one want in life?” I have to rephrase my question in four different ways. He rubs his temple with his forefinger and after much contemplation he then blurts out that the only non-material benefit of education he sees for the whole village is that “We understand Islam much better than those who are illiterate.”

Master Eesa, as he is known in the village, has a huge dish antenna placed in the courtyard of his house and from where we are sitting I can hear a rather bold (in terms of sexual nuances) Indian film playing on television in the next room full of women and children — an allowance, perhaps, made for a better understanding of Islam.

Having spoken to a couple of dozen villagers — all men, the women obviously have no business talking to a stranger — it becomes quite clear that social norms, civic sense and cultural behaviours operate independent of education in this village. Or maybe the education system in Peelu Vance, or for that matter in the rest of the province and country, is geared only to prepare students for employment with no regard to social uplift and a change of attitude.

In fact, a World Bank report on Punjab schools, notes that there isn’t much literacy and numeracy happening in the classrooms. “Learning levels are far below international standards and they have little or nothing to do with the curriculum designed for the grade level,” says the Learning and Educational Achievements in Punjab Schools (LEAPS) report that came out last year. Another report finds that only 35% of schoolchildren, aged 6-16, can read a story, while 50% cannot read a sentence.

Nisar Butt, a former headmaster from Sargodha and retired official of the Ministry of Education, believes that though Pakistan has had 10 educational policies since 1947, none has been implemented sincerely. As a result, government schools routinely underperform and private institutions, though proliferating in number, are not pushed to going beyond getting the students through to the examinations. “There is visibly more schooling and less learning happening in Pakistan with every passing year. What we need more than schools is a healthier attitude towards education.”

Peelu Vance, then, offers a preview of Pakistan’s future, even if — and that’s a very big if — we manage to put all our 25 million out-of-school children into classrooms that merely promote and perpetuate mediocrity. Ambitious or out-of-reach as it sounds today, even achieving the goal of universal education tomorrow is not likely to translate into meaningful change for society as a whole, if we continue to under-educate our children in letter, and miss the spirit altogether.

The hindrance is not a lack of resources, as is popularly believed. Pakistan is a poor country, but there are at least 26 countries that are poorer, and still manage to send a higher proportion of their children to primary schools. The problem is also not with demand for education. In a recent nationwide survey, 85% of respondents said they believe education makes children grow into better human beings and responsible citizens. And parents in the urban centres are so aware of the need for quality education that they are willing to pay through their nose for private education. More than half of Pakistan’s urban school-going children, and one third of all school-going kids in the country attend private institutions.

The problem is a lack of political will. The education budget keeps getting slashed and stands at a dismal 2% of the GDP. To add insult to injury, even this meagre amount doesn’t get used up fully. Bilateral and multilateral donor agencies are spending millions of dollars annually in the education sector, but a major chunk of this money goes to waste because the education authorities in the country have neither a plan nor a vision.

Even in a rudimentary, elections-only kind of democracy, people have some degree of leverage in putting some of their demands on the governments’ to-do list. Every day, people in different parts of the country, protest against prolonged power and gas outages, raises in the electricity tariff, hikes in oil prices et al. And they do get relief in some cases, albeit for a few days. How many times have you heard about a group of people demanding quality education for their children? How many times has a member of parliament been forced by the electorate in their constituency to raise the issue in the House? How many times have you heard an Azad Kashmiri complain why only 20% of the virtually razed-to-the ground schools in the 2005 earthquake have been rebuilt, while more than 90% of some six lakh houses have long been built and inspected to ensure that they meet the standards prescribed by the Earthquake Relief and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA)?

This is the reality. We, in Pakistan, have raised an entire generation of teachers and parents on below par education. They are now controlling the learning fate of the next generation. At this rate we can expect to see more university graduates with an ever-decreasing quality of learning, year after year. To reverse this process, all individuals who call themselves educated will have to step up and play their part. And if we can’t figure out how we can end this cycle of educated ignorance, maybe we should start seeking education again.

This article was originally published in the April issue of Newsline.

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