THE refusal of Laado to accompany her mother to the paddy fields during the harvesting season because of homework is an encouraging sign in a society where education for girls is still frowned upon. Laado belongs to the Ghuna fisherfolk community and is studying at a government school — practically run by an NGO — in a small village in the Sindh district of Badin.
Her refusal is the outcome of 10 years of tireless efforts put in by local community activists, who besides arranging for uniforms and reading material, have managed to make transport available for girl students.
After leaving government service, I decided to settle in the village, and after three years of interaction with the rural folk, have seen how wrong the general assumption can be that children help their parents earn a livelihood and therefore cannot be sent to school. Actual land is shrinking thanks to expanding villages; with greater infrastructure, rapid farm mechanisation and unchecked population growth the agricultural sector is losing its capacity to absorb more people in the workforce.
Most school-age children, who accompany their parents to the fields, do nothing but play in the mud, catch fish or collect leftover post-harvest stalks which they sell.
The challenge is to enrol such idle children in schools. For that, lucrative incentives are free lunches and cooking oil. These were introduced in selected rural schools for girls some years ago in many areas of Sindh; there was a remarkable rise in enrolment, but then many donors withdrew due to corruption in the education sector.
Besides offering such incentives, the need is to discourage parents to bring children to the fields, and to, instead, persuade them to send their offspring to school. Anyone closely observing rural life in Sindh can see the large shadow of the landowner hovering over the common man. However, success of the education project depends on the collective efforts of local waderas who enjoy authority at the village level under the patronage of big feudal lords.
Feudalism in Sindh, unlike in other parts of the subcontinent, has continued. Only education can undermine the evil. No government in Sindh has ever given sincere thought to educating the masses — despite the yearly increase in the education budget and multi-million-dollar foreign projects.
The deterioration of education in Sindh can be traced to the early 1970s; no government after that, elected or installed by a dictator, focused on education meaningfully. Political considerations have dominated recruitments and postings and the issue has been exploited to strengthen vote banks and usurp funds.
The poor commitment of Sindh’s rulers to education is evident from the fact that despite the selection of high-school, middle-school and primary-school teachers by the National Testing Service in October 2012 and January 2013 the recruitment process has not yet been completed. The Sindh education department might have been able to bring about some improvement in some of the schools in the category of public-private partnership, but the conditions in thousands of primary and secondary government schools are reported to have worsened.
Reports from independent agencies and donors such as the Aga Khan University Institute for Educational Development present a gloomy scenario with regard to enrolment, quality of education and performance of teachers. The Annual Status of Education Report 2012 paints a sorry picture of education “especially in Sindh” where the number of children who do not have access to schools has increased.
The state of affairs in the realm of higher and technical education in interior Sindh also leaves much to be desired. Except perhaps for the medical and engineering universities in Jamshoro, academic activities in other public universities are below par. Postings of allegedly ineligible vice chancellors and principals are a key cause of discontent.
Fortunately, there are still some competent and committed persons in the Sindh bureaucracy. Progress can be achieved if their services are more usefully employed to ensure that recruitment is made strictly on merit and postings as per policy and the focus remains on training and enhancing the capabilities of teachers.
Monitoring through effective community participation at all tiers and the constitution of a powerful independent board at the provincial level, comprising educationists and civil society members are necessary steps. Last but not least, across-the-board accountability including of the secretary who is not only the administrative head but the principal accounting officer of the department, is a must.
Bringing improvement in education appears to be a gigantic task but it is surmountable; when Punjab has shown that it can do it, why not Sindh? It may be a distant dream, but if the major obstacle of educational institutions functioning as the personal fiefdoms of feudal lords — to whom educating the public represents a threat — can be overcome, the battle would partly have been won.
The writer is a former secretary, Sindh.