Among the greatest ironies that Pakistani citizens are subjected to is the privatisation of their fundamental rights: access to basic education and the primary health care.
Any civilized country, even those that have modelled their economies on the starkest capitalist mode, nevertheless ensure the provision of education up to school level and basic healthcare to all its citizens. These are regarded as the most vital of all the fundamental rights. Pakistan in this regard is the glaring anomaly where the fundamental rights have been turned into a business, and a business of the most lucrative kind. Business entrepreneurs see education as the safest of all sectors in which to invest their capital. Quality education for young people has become forbiddingly expensive, far beyond the reach of 90 percent of the population.
This is the fundamental reason for the mushrooming growth of madrassas across the country, where instruction, lodging and meals are provided free of charge. Therefore, poorer section sends its children to madrassas. Since education has become a business venture where profit is the prime motive, internationally recognised education has become a rare privilege, available only to the affluent.
The same is the case in the provision of proper health care which is not available, even for the moneyed people. Therefore the wealthy, including the prime minister, opt to travel overseas to have their medical checkups carried out. What could be a greater irony than that? But education is the prime focus of this article education with some references to the rueful state of healthcare.
Generally, people criticise Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s policy of nationalising educational institutions and blame the declining standards of education on this nationalisation. Today, it is understood that privatisation will ensure quality education because private entrepreneurs, in order to profit and prosper, will do their utmost to provide the best possible service to their clients. This not only devolves the responsibility of the state to educate to private service providers, it also alters the status of those receiving education to that of a ‘client’.
Thus the state’s responsibility and citizens rights are downgraded, with no regard to the standard of education being provided. In addition to this, the education offered by private providers exacerbates class differentiation. The poverty of the poor sections of our society is thereby perpetuated and any prospect of social mobility is eradicated. Consequently, the distinction between rich and poor has become an abiding feature of society, a feature which is clearly visible in Pakistan.
Ironically, the category of ‘class’ has become a taboo here, given its Marxist connotation. As a result, class having been excised from the discourse, social analysis of our societal structures is wanting.
Reverting to the issue of the privatisation of education, to my reckoning it is far too simplistic to infer that Bhutto’s nationalisation of schools and colleges led to the decline in the standard of overall education. This conclusion is conveniently drawn just to discredit Bhutto. While casting an analytical look at the performance of the schools in the 1970s, the nationalised schools and colleges were doing reasonably well.
The rot began in the 1980s under General Zia ul Haq and particularly when he gave carte blanche to Islami Jamiat Talaba, the student wing of Jamaat-i-Islami and the witch-hunt which followed any teacher perceived as liberal or leftist. Jamaat-i-Islami-sponsored textbooks and syllabi were introduced in which the discourse that was generated and professed showed a very clear influence of Jamaat’s ideology.
Religious extremism, which is posited as an existential threat to the state of Pakistan, is one of the by-products of this ideological and religiously oriented education. Thus, it was an ideologically-driven education which caused a down-scaling in educational standards, and not the mere act of nationalisation. Interestingly, the most ardent opponents of the de-nationalisation of these institutions were Jamaat-i-Islami operatives, who have throughout been the most acerbic of Bhutto’s critics.
Another point which needs to be considered is the deterioration of the reputation of institutions which were once regarded as excellent. In Lahore, the Central Model School was once a quality institution. Similarly Mozang High School was known for its impeccable standards. The chain of Islamia High Schools in various district headquarters offered exceptionally good education where families of the lower middle classes could afford to send their children. I vividly remember Government High School No.1 in Dera Ghazi Khan, which had an excellent reputation in the 1970s. Muslim High School, Multan along with Pilot Secondary School were excellent sites of instructing the young. These schools were in competition with Aitchison College, Saint Anthony’s and Cathedrals, and were judged by many to be on an even keel with them.
Sadly, however, corrosion set in in those schools in the 1980s, and steadily these institutions became empty spaces, leaving a vacuum to be filled by a number of private and expensive schools. The poorer sections of our society were cast out of the equation, with no ray of hope for any improvement in their lot through education and self-improvement.
With the privatisation of education, our youth was given a globalised vision. They are trained in the light of a liberal ethos embedded in Western tradition. When the student comes out of that space (institutions such as Lahore Grammar School, Beacon House or LUMS for instance), they encounter a set of values which are diametrically opposed to whatever they have been instructed in previously. Our national narrative, predicated on religious ideology, strongly contravenes the fundamental content of education which is provided at these institutions.
Our youth, therefore, inhabit a world that is a contradiction in terms. Besides all of this, nationalism, or any mention of the problems encountered by our country, hardly feature in the educational content they receive there. Thus private education is producing a generation which is not grounded in any geographical space of cultural tradition. Consequently, many of them tend to seek refuge in abstractions.
Does our government have the time to think about it? My answer is in the negative. The state of health care is no different. Very soon, as it seems, people will be forced to rely solely on the charity hospitals.