The newly-elected coalition government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has decided to abolish the flashy Daanish Schools in the Punjab province, and divert the resources to other education and health projects, conceived by the ruling party. The expensive education initiative was launched by former chief minister Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif. The decision to close down the project was taken at the first meeting of the Strategic Committee on the Annual Development Plan, held on September 6, 2018, in Lahore, with Punjab Finance Minister Makhdoom Hashim Jawan Bakht in the chair.
The decision must have come as a big shock for Shahbaz Sharif, who has a long-drawn-out romance with the project. The news about scrapping of the project took the writer down memory lane. The year was 2011, and the event was inauguration of the second Daanish School in Hasilpur tehsil of Bahawalpur district, by the then Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who cried with an underprivileged girl who had got admission to her dream school.
Sixth grader Amna Mahmood cried after reading out her early life story in English to the audience. Soon after, the chief minister said in his speech that millions of Amnas were suffering the same plight, as they craved for a meal, medicine and shelter. He pledged that the Daanish school would offer sympathetic treatment to 220 young students – 110 boys and as many girls – admitted to the first Class-VI session.
At that time, two Daanish schools had been made functional at Rahim Yar Khan and Hasilpur, while the third one was scheduled to be launched in Chishtian (Bahawalnagar). During those two years (2011 and 2012), 14 Daanish schools — seven for boys and as many for girls — were made functional with a huge allocation of funds. The first Daanish schools (boys and girls) were opened on January 13, 2011 at Rahim Yar Khan, followed by boys and girls Daanish schools in Hasilpur, then at Harnoli (District Mianwali), and Dera Ghazi Khan on January 6, 2012.
According to official data, Daanish school Rahim Yar Khan is spread across 115 acres of land, Hasilpur 550 acres, Chishtian 350 acres, and Dera Ghazi Khan over 169 acres and four canals. Each Daanish school campus, worth around one billion rupees, consists of separate academic campuses and hostels for boys and girls, and has an estimated Rs. 21 million annual operating expenditure. Initially, the government was spending some Rs. 15,000 a month per child to offer them quality education through modern resources of teaching and methodologies by well-qualified and well-trained teachers. During the last over six years, per child expenses and running expenditures have multiplied.
During his speech in Hasilpur, the chief minister became emotional. He said these schools were not for children belonging to elite families, but hundreds of thousands of boys and girls like Amna. Everyone present was moved and lauded the chief minister’s determination. However, his emotional speech failed to impress many present at the ceremony, including his critics.
From launching of the project to date, they have always opposed the initiative, for the reason that the chief minister had simply ignored the basic needs of “millions of Amnas”, who were unable to find a school that could offer them simple academic environment to remove the dark clouds of illiteracy.
A great number of educationists and even officials attached with the Education Department believe that flashy projects like Daanish schools cannot even create a ripple in improving the education and literacy indicators touching humiliating low rankings. According to Alif Ailaan educational initiative findings, Pakistan is just ahead of Afghanistan among all South Asian countries in terms of education indicators. Learning levels of most students in public schools are much below their class-wise standards. In such circumstances, launching such expensive education projects was simply an injustice to all other children in the province.
Pakistan Education Statistics 2015-16 launched by the National Education Management Information System (NEMIS) – a subsidiary of the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, painted a gloomy picture of the education sector last year. The statistics show that 44% children between the ages of five and 16 are still out of school. Also, 21% primary schools in the province are being run by a single teacher while 14% have one room. The report says that only 30% children remain enrolled from class 1 till the 10th. As far as schools’ infrastructure is concerned, 40% public sector primary schools were operating without electricity, 28% did not have toilets, 25% were without boundary walls and 29% had no access to drinking water. While 7% schools did not have any building and 43% had unsatisfactory buildings.
While the provincial government was giving special treatment to Daanish schools, the Punjab School Education Department kept merging schools quietly and brought down the tally of 63,000 schools to 61,000 in the same period (2011-12). An official told a Dawn reporter that the Punjab government wanted to bring down the tally to 40,000 schools so that they might be provided missing facilities and run effectively.
Educationists believe that the government should focus on providing facilities to some 20.9 million children studying in public schools instead of going for unjust distribution of available resources and spending billions of rupees on state-of-the-art schools. They say each Daanish school will impart education to just 1,100 students in five years. Therefore, spending billions of rupees on those few hundred children and depriving millions of others could never be justified by anyone. The educationists say the chief minister could have used these funds to strengthen some good schools in all tehsils, provide well-educated and well-trained teachers for quality education to create a positive ripple in the otherwise gloomy scenario. The outgoing chief minister should have looked at the case of 40% of the children, who get admission to public schools, but drop out before reaching Grade-V, a benchmark for admission to Daanish schools.
Another aspect, which was mostly underplayed by the Shahbaz Sharif administration, was corruption stories in the Daanish schools. Two years back, the Auditor General of Pakistan found a whopping Rs. 172.909 million corruption in the project. The audit found that teachers and staff were appointed without merit, equipment and furniture were purchased in violation of approved procedures and over payments were made in the form of perks and salaries.
The AGP found irregularities of Rs54.749 million in the accounts of Daanish schools, which surged from Rs. 20.69 million in the previous audit year – 2015-16. The difference in irregularities equals to an increase of around 155% in just a single year. The issue was also raised in the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). However, the matter was hushed up as the project was the baby of the chief executive of the province.
That’s why, the news of scrapping of the flashy project has created no ripples. The provincial finance minister, Makhdoom Hashim Jawan Bakht – who hails from southern Punjab where most Daanish schools have been established, suggested alternative use of the existing school buildings. The Strategic Committee on Annual Development Plan meeting unanimously agreed to change the name of Daanish school and sending the enrolled students to other public sector institutions of the province.
Makhdoom Hashim told Cutting Edge after the meeting that the resources generated by stopping these projects would be used for other school sector projects like improving the quality of education and provision of missing facilities in the existing schools of the province.