It was the morning of his first day at school post summer vacations. Ibrahim, a Grade 5 student, had just got there in time, oblivious to the fact that the private school, located in Johar Town, was classified in category A for being a high-risk zone.
The 11-year-old was quite surprised to see an army of security guards parading around the school, with their guns blatantly pointed towards those approaching the gate.
Ibrahim was asked to come via a metal walkthru that scanned his bag also. The little boy was stupefied, not knowing what was going on. God knows he wasn’t alone in this experience. All his school fellows shared the sense of shock. For their parents/guardians, who must have heard of the many incidents of kidnappings of children in and around the city, it was no less unsettling.
The police has been trying to downplay the issue but the disappearance of the (reported) 773 children in Lahore during the year so far is no trivial matter.
There has been a lot of confusion about whether the schools would be opened as per schedule or the vacations would be extended — all due to the security threat. Though the threat was sensed in the wake of the harrowing Army Public School incident in Peshawar in December 2014, the recent spate of kidnappings has aggravated the situation.
Schools’ administrations as well as the Punjab Police have had to give reassurances to worrying parents to calm their nerves. But it seems their woes aren’t going to end anytime soon.
Nabeela, a resident of Dharampura, used to send her children to school with their class mates. As the school is located close by, the children would walk up to it. But today she makes sure she drops them off herself. And she doesn’t leave the school premises until they have entered the gate. Later, she is there to pick them up a good few minutes before the school is off.
Nabeela says it isn’t easy for her to manage this. But since her husband is based in Saudi Arabia because of his job, she must do the needful. The school administration has especially requested the parents to ensure the exercise or get cards issued for those they would recommend in stead.
Razia Bibi, another worried parent, says she isn’t confident of the security arrangements made at the government school where her kids are enrolled. “There are no security guards [at the school],” she says. “A lot of children from poor families go to schools by themselves. They are obviously not secure.”
Bibi also speaks of how the police only protects schools that fall in category A and ignores the rest. “No children from an affluent family have been reported as kidnapped, have they? Why is security their issue only?” she asks.
The government is not ready to accept the blame. Mushtaq Ahmed, Deputy Secretary, Schools, Punjab, insists CCTV cameras have been installed at most schools of Lahore and the boundary walls have been raised up to 8 feet.
“We advertised for recruitment of security guards for government schools twice recently but didn’t receive a single application,” Ahmed says. “No one wants to be deployed at a government school.”
As a result, “The government has decided to recruit retired army jawaans [as security guards] across the province [of Punjab]. So, the people must rest assured that the education department is doing its best to protect the schools and the students.”
Ahmed reveals that the schools have been given special instructions. “No student should be allowed to go outside during schools hours. Even the peddlers and vendors selling food items, drinks, ice cream etc have been restrained from getting close to the schools.”
Kashif Mirza, President, All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPF), comes down hard on the government and says it is the prime responsibility of the state to protect its people. “The duty of the educational institutions is to provide quality education and not to guard anyone against kidnappers and/or terrorists. The campuses are no garrisons, and have no defence lineup to get into armed combats,” he says.
Mirza makes it clear that the schools’ administrations are not responsible if any such incident takes place. “No doubt we have an internal security system in place but we are not accountable for the security situation outside. Having said that, at least one police constable is supposed to be present at the gate of the school that falls in category A.”
He admits that there is “an urgent need to increase police patrolling in the school premises.”
President APPF also claims that the schools have to be extra cautious anyway as “terrorists and/or kidnappers may easily enter the campuses in the guise of the cops.
“It is difficult for 18,000 private schools in Lahore to employ security guards, as the income of most schools is limited,” he adds.
Interestingly, whereas the security equipment bought by most schools is substandard, an average guard demands a monthly salary of Rs20,000. Those schools that fall in categories B and C can simply not afford this, which means they are at a constant risk. “The state must take responsibility of their security.
“It’s a pity that 500-odd FIRs have been registered against different school administrations under the National Action Plan (NAP) for the violation of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) regarding security arrangements. Is this the way to treat those people who want education for their children?”
Dr Haider Ashraf, Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Operations, Lahore, does not deny that security is the responsibility of the state. He asserts that the institutions of the state are fully aware of the situation and working accordingly: “Police patrolling has been increased wherever there is a school.”
However, he wants the schools to share the onus. “They [the schools] must ensure their security protocol. If they fail to do so, the police will take action against them.
“The category-A schools have been provided with full security but the police cannot be deployed at every single place on earth.”
For its part, the Punjab government is said to have devised a plan whereby it shall hire well-trained guards for government schools. Irfan Qaisar, Chairman TEVTA, Punjab, says the Home Department has “tasked us to train 170,000 security guards. We’ve received hundreds of thousands of applications from different districts. Admission shall be given only after their clearance by the special branch of police.”
Of these, at least 20,000 guards shall be trained with the help of SSG commandos, army men, police officers, snipers and Rescue 1122 staff. “They will learn how to operate the metal detectors, scanners and walkthrough gates. We shall also teach them how to use rifles and other weapons.”
According to Qaisar, 20 per cent of the security guards who are already working in different security agencies have applied for admission at TEVTA.