Gaslighting is psychological manipulation to the extent that the victim questions his/her own sanity (often achieved by incessant lying by the manipulator). I saw it in full swing a few days ago, on June 13, when I was watching the Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Fawad Chaudhry, on a cable TV talk show alongside HEC Chairman Dr Tariq Banuri.
The discussion began with the HEC Chairman lamenting the cuts in HEC’s budget. HEC’s recurring budget last year was Rs65 billion, which has been reduced to Rs59.1 billion this year, representing a 9 percent cut. Last year’s development budget was a little shy of Rs36 billion, which has been reduced to a little more than Rs29 billion this year, representing a 19 percent cut. If you add these figures up, last year’s total budget was Rs101 billion, which has been reduced to Rs88.1 billion this year, representing a 13 percent cut.
These numbers were cited by the HEC chairman, and I verified them from public budget documents on the website of the Ministry of Finance. For perspective, the HEC had requested Rs103.5 billion for its recurring budget and Rs55 billion for its development budget, a total of Rs158.5 billion for this year, making the allocated amount only less than 56 percent of what was requested.
The reader should remember that much of these funds go towards paying scholarships to Pakistani scholars abroad, which are paid out in foreign currencies. The rupee’s recent devaluation against the US dollar further compounds the financial pressure on the HEC in an environment where it has seen its budget cut in rupee terms.
As was reported in a press release from the HEC a few months ago, universities are under tremendous financial pressure and are being urged by the HEC to raise funds by other means, e.g., self-financing (a fancy term for hikes in tuition fees), soliciting donations from the private sector and establishing endowment funds, greater efficiency, a policy of hiring freezes for university faculty and staff and reducing headcounts by natural attrition. The HEC is struggling to meet its payroll obligations for existing faculty. This will inevitably lead to a greater number of unemployed Ph.Ds, and there are 12 newly established universities that were scheduled to start operations this fiscal year that will now receive zero financial support, and have been asked to raise their own funds, presumably from tuition fees.
Enter the Minister for Science and Technology, Fawad Chaudhry; He kicked off his defence with a blanket denial, saying that these numbers were wrong and, in his free-wheeling style, claimed that higher education had been allocated Rs43 billion in the budget, which (somehow) constitutes a 35 percent increase, a claim immediately denied by the HEC chairman sitting right next to him! Now, I have tried comparing Rs43 billion to all the amounts I found in previous budget documents, but I cannot figure how you can get from that to a claim of a 35 percent increase over anything. Math error? Maybe.
A cable TV talk show is not the place to resolve math problems, and perhaps that is what the good minister was counting on. Nevertheless, he persisted in his claim that this budget allocated a record amount to higher education. Casual viewers supporting the party in power may have swallowed the claim; Did I mishear this? Did I misunderstand that? — gaslighting at its finest!
When pressed further, the good minister performs another feat of logic acrobatics. He is including Rs14 billion allocated to his Ministry of Science and Technology for some nebulous development of the knowledge economy to the allocation of higher education, i.e., he is including money for his ministry in allocation to higher education. He then explains that Rs43 billion figure is actually the sum of the HEC’s Rs29 billion and his ministry’s knowledge economy project allocation. How that will help the HEC meet its recurring expenses and cover payroll, is a question best ignored.
So, you may wonder, what initiatives is the Ministry of Science and Technology going to take towards developing this knowledge economy? While the minister did not go into any detail on that, the answer came only two days later, on June 15, when he appeared on another talk show on another channel.
After paying lip-service to the importance of education and the need to focus on quality over quantity, and highlighting that higher education in Pakistan is among the most inexpensive in the world, possibly a not so subtle signal to everyone to expect tuition hikes, Fawad Chaudhry moved on to unveiling his ministry’s principal initiative for developing a knowledge economy. Apparently, the plan is to organise a ‘Month of Science and Technology,’ in July during which local innovators and inventors will showcase their projects at Governor Houses. Selected projects will then be invited to another showcase at an “International Science Conference” to be held in August, to which he will invite Bill Gates, Elon Musk and the likes of them, since they will not have anything better to do with their time, to “hear their stories.” This plan is as simplistic as it is a banal waste of funds the kind we see happening every day, but expect gaslit believers to praise the Lord!
Fawad Chaudhry was followed by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, who had other ideas for reform to foster a culture of science and curiosity and improve the quality of education in Pakistan. He suggested setting up interactive science museums in Pakistani cities, as exist in many cities around the world, made especially accessible to schools. School trips to such museums spark interest and curiosity, fostering a sense of exploration and adventure. But most importantly, such museums can demonstrate to students (and their teachers) that the science is about more than memorisation of poorly written textbooks.
Our political climate has become one where people are no longer willing to agree to easily and objectively verifiable facts anymore. Repeat a lie often enough, and eventually you have enough people doubting themselves and thinking, “Hey, maybe the guy that keeps repeating himself is right and I am the one who’s mistaken.” In 2019, gaslighting has come to Pakistan, too.