“Had I been corrupt, why would have I referred the case to the provincial chief executive, his inspection team, former Ehtisab Commission and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB),” seems to be the most valid point of the suspended Managing Director of Elementary and Secondary Education Foundation (ESEF), Zulfiqar Ahmad, during the ongoing tug of war between him and the provincial education department over alleged corruption, ghost schools and fake enrollments in the multi-million Iqra Farogh-e-Taleem Voucher Scheme (IFTVS).
The education department, however, has its own reasons to defend its stance. The department says since ESEF is an independent and autonomous body managed by a board of governors and headed by the managing director, he should have taken action to curb the corrupt practices and brought it before the board instead of creating hue and cry in media and referring the cases for probe to accountability bodies.
“The suspended official is doing all this only to hide his own inefficiencies and alleged corrupt practices,” Arshad Khan, Secretary Elementary and Secondary Education, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tells The News on Sunday.
As both the sides stick to their guns, the fact remains that huge amount of funds have been ruthlessly embezzled in the IFTVS, a much-trumpeted and very important project aimed at educating the uneducated — out of school children aging between 5 and 15. The funds’ embezzlement has been proved in the Provincial Inspection Team’s (PIT) inquiry report, which was submitted to the provincial government recently.
The report says that an amount of Rs 19.49 was embezzled in just a few schools inspected by the team in District Mansehra. The report recommends immediate recovery of the funds from the agreement holders of the (ghost) schools concerned through NAB. The report also recommends proper probe of 65 remaining schools in the same district and all the IFTVS schools in the whole province, which could not be inspected by the PIT. It also recommends referring the case to NAB for further legal action.
The report holds Zulfiqar Ahmad, managing director ESEF (suspended) responsible for failure to develop a viable monitoring system for the project besides ‘banning’ director monitoring of the project from visit to district Mansehra, where massive irregularities had long been reported. On the basis of these charges, termination of his service contract has been recommended, according to the report, a copy of which was acquired by The News on Sunday.
More serious is the issue of ghost schools and fake enrollments. It has now become clear that many of the schools, which had been engaged under the IFTVS, were found to be non-existant and nearly half of the students enrolled under the project were not physically available.
The working paper prepared by the (suspended) MD for the board of governors’ meeting on the basis of the reports he had received from different districts shows that only 600 of the total 1500 schools were physically available and only 51,708 students were actually found present against the projected number of 93,399, which meant that 41,681 of them were fake. As per the project, the out-of-school children should be enrolled in low paid private schools at the areas where government schools are not available. The project would pay an amount of Rs1100 per month to the schools concerned.
Though the matter is serious, the government seems uninterested about the startling figure of ghost schools, fake enrollments and corrupt practices. All those at the helm of affairs want to distance themselves from the responsibility. This exactly was done at the crowded press conference by two provincial ministers — Information Minister Shaukat Yousafzai and advisor on education Ziaullah Bangash — last week after the issue came to the limelight.
They were of the opinion that the (suspended) managing director was solely responsible for the mess and the government would move NAB against him despite the fact that the case is already being investigated by NAB. They said the managing director had been unable to convene meetings of the BoG of the ESEF in nine months, which was the right forum to discuss such issues and fix responsibilities and his performance was ‘Zero’.
Arshad Khan says: “The foundation was supposed to set up 1600 girls community schools and enroll 2,25,000 out-of-school children by June 30, 2019. A huge fund amounting to Rs3.2 billion had been allocated for the purpose. But not a single school could be set up and no student could be enrolled prompting the board to suspend the services of the managing director.”
Zulfiqar Ahmad, on the other hand, claims that 100,000 students had been enrolled in 2018 with 50,000 each in community schools and private schools against the target of 1,40,000. He says that the reason behind the nine-month delay in holding of the board’s meeting was the non-availability of the education minister.
He says that as per statutes, provincial minister for education would be the chairman of the board and he would chair its meeting. In the absence of the minister, chief minister was the chairman and owing to his (chief minister’s) engagements no meeting could be held. They then moved a summary to the chief minister to authorise the advisor on education to chair the meeting and thus the meeting was arranged in February last.
But the board ‘willfully’ discussed only one item of the heavy agenda containing 11 points. The managing director, as per the working paper he had prepared for the meeting, confessed: “Due to the prevailing circumstances of ESEF, the target of more 100,000 out-of-school children is not possible to achieve. ESEF, in the meantime, will try its best to further validate the existing enrolled OOSCs and consolidate the IFTVS programme being implemented in 25 districts of the province.”
Arshad Khan claims that the managing director, during the meeting, admitted that the funds amounting to Rs3.2 billion for the project would be surrendered after deduction of managerial costs. Zulfiqar Ahmad on the other hand has his own points.
He says it was not true that ‘zero’ progress has been made towards the target. “3,000 teachers are working under the project and tens of thousands of students are enrolled. Their salaries and expenses were paid from the same fund.”
Both the sides have been busy in trading allegations, which seem more focused on saving their respective skins instead of rectifying the mess.
However, a thorough study of all the documents acquired and detailed discussions made with the stakeholders showed that serious lapses were committed in implementation of the project at every stage.
It is true that the project is an initiative of the ESEF, which is thoroughly an independent body managed by a board of governors. The education department has nothing to do with the foundation. The minister chairs the board and the secretary is just a member of the board.
The managing director is directly responsible for the operations of the foundation and all projects initiated by it. The corrupt practices in the project concerned were started from the very beginning in 2014 by not just one person or a group of individuals, but almost everyone attached with the project was either directly involved in the corrupt practices or at least he was aware of it.
But unfair practices were carried out right from the surveys to identify out-of-school children till agreements with schools and enrollments of students. Funds were embezzled at every stage in every district with only a few exceptions like Peshawar. Inquiries are already in progress against several officials of the foundation with some having been found guilty and some have already been terminated or transferred for alleged involvement in corrupt practices.
“The matter needs to be thoroughly probed and stern punishments should be awarded to those found guilty of corrupt practices,” says Mohammad Ashfaq, a senior journalist covering education. “But at the same time the project needs to be continued in a transparent manner as the out-of-school children is one of the real issues confronting the society and it requires proper solution,” he adds.
The current and previous Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf governments in the province never tired of making tall claims of focusing all attention on promotion of education in the province. They had also declared education emergency in the province on the day one of their previous rule in 2013. But only this one project is enough to expose the reality of their claims.