Development funds lapse should be declared a criminal act and the Parliament should legislate on it, suggests educationists.
The recently published media reports on the lapse of education development funds have caused great mental pain to Chaudhry Ahmad Hassan, who’s serving as the principal of a big high school in the Lahore region.
“Isn’t it sheer injustice to a province where over 15 million children are still out of school and whatever meagre allocations are made in the annual budget go unutilised due to lack of interest and negligence of officials and departments concerned,” asks the educationist, who has served the provincial Planning and Development (P&D) department for long in the near past.
The official data published by the national dailies showed that in the first six months (July-December) of financial year 2019-20, a total of Rs. 42.9 billion were allocated for development projects of four education departments. The departments included Punjab School Education Department, Punjab Higher Education Department, Special Education Department and Literacy and Non-formal Basic Education Department.
The official figures showed that out of the total allocations, only Rs. 15.33 billion or 35.73 per cent had been released until December, and if the trend continues for the remaining half of the fiscal year, most of the development projects might not get completed, or even initiated in the province. Only one department got more than half of the allocations and only a single department was able to utilise more than 75 per cent of the released funds.
The biggest department of the biggest province of Pakistan, the Punjab School Education Department, was allocated a total of Rs. 32 billion for FY2019-20 under the development head. After the passage of the first six months of the fiscal year, the provincial government had released only Rs. 11.982 billion or 37.44 per cent of the total allocation. And of that, only Rs. 3.752 billion or 11.72 per cent of the total allocation, and 31.31 per cent of the released amount had been utilised by the department.
Ahmad Hassan says the dismal picture becomes even gloomier for a person who knows well how direly funds are needed to open new schools and improve the lot of the existing ones. A United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) report estimates that the Punjab province will need 35,000 more schools in the coming years to provide access to all out-of-school children to get an education. The report revealed that around 31pc girls and 22pc boys in the age group of 5 to 16 are not enrolled in the province currently.
The Report on Annual School Census 2017-18 showed that over 520 government schools in the Punjab have no functional toilets and drinking water facilities, more than 1,000 have no boundary walls, and over 2,200 are without electricity. These are official figures, and the actual numbers may be many more.
The Annual Statistical Report 2017-18 showed that the dropout rate was 44 and 40pc at primary and secondary levels, respectively. Low enrolment also caused the closure of 150 schools in the district of Haripur. All the issues need the attention of the authorities concerned on a case-to-case basis.
The Higher Education Department was allocated a total of Rs. 7.3 billion for development projects in fiscal year 2019-20. At the end of the six months, the provincial government released only Rs. 2.155 billion or 29.52 per cent of the total allocation. Of that, only Rs. 0.515 billion or 7.05 per cent of the total allocation and 23.89 per cent of the released amount had been utilised. The pathetic situation of higher education institutions due to lack of funds is a common knowledge. It must be a cause of concern for every individual of the nation if even the allocated and released funds are not spent timely and judiciously.
The third department, Punjab Special Education, fared better than all other departments in getting funds, though it also failed to utilise the released funds completely. A total of one billion rupees were allocated in the 2019-20 budget for special education and the government released Rs 0.543 billion or 54.3 per cent between July and December 2019. However, only Rs 0.027 billion or 2.7 per cent of the allocated amount and a mere 4.97 per cent of the total released amount was utilised by the department.
For various projects of the Literacy and Non-formal Basic Education Department, the Punjab government allocated a total of Rs. 2.6 billion under the development head. After the first six months of fiscal year 2019-20, the Punjab government released Rs. 0.65 billion or 25 per cent of the total allocation. Of the amount, Rs. 0.497 billion, or 19.11 per cent, of the allocation and 76.46 per cent of the released amount was utilised by the department.
Ahmad Hassan regrets that even highly prioritised areas of the government are also facing hurdles as the release of funds had been delayed. Some 310 approved schemes for schools, higher and special education were able to get only Rs. 4.29 billion in the first six months of FY20 out of the total allocation of Rs. 40 billion. For specialised healthcare and medical education, not a single rupee was utilised despite releasing Rs. 4 billion.
Also, only Rs. 1.01 billion was utilised by the provincial government on 159 approved schemes in the area of primary and secondary healthcare. For FY20, Rs. 23.5 billion had been allocated for the schemes whereas only Rs. 9.8 billion was actually released.
The educationist does not agree with the notion that development funds go unutilised due to capacity issues. Now, a large majority of education development projects are carried out through district governments, under the direct supervision of the deputy commissioners (DCs) concerned, he tells Cutting Edge.
In every district, the DC has an experienced team of experts, who not only prepare development schemes but also supervise their construction and completion. He says that with the release of the budget document every year, all district administrations know it clearly what projects had been proposed for their regions and how much allocations made.
If the departments and officials concerned initiate work on the proposed projects immediately after the release of the budget document after its approval from the provincial assembly, there would be no issue of funds lapse at all. He believes it’s mostly slackness, lack of interest and sometimes mala fide intentions that delay the launch of projects and lapse of development funds.
The educationist admits that sometimes a tussle between the local political leadership and the district administration causes delay in the finalisation of projects. However, he adds, if the political leadership shows maturity and the Education Department as well as the district administration perform their duties honestly and dedicatedly, any small hurdles could be overcome easily.
Last year, the Punjab government introduced its education policy under the New Deal 2018-2023. Despite the claim of the chief minister that education was ignored in the province for the last 70 years, the Punjab is at an advantage having benefited from reform efforts since as early as 2003. These efforts were successful to an extent, though success rates varied across districts.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government in the province may claim newness of the 2018-2023 deal, the objectives of reducing the number of out-of-school children, ensuring quality education through textbook reform and teacher training, focusing on early education and pre-primary education, improving examination and evaluation and building the capacity of the education sector is similar to the objectives of the previous governments, which also ensured the continuity of reform policy.
Hassan agrees to an explanation partially that the PTI government, being inexperienced, and lack of cooperation on part of the bureaucracy and the administration caused lapse of development funds during its first year in the government in the province. However, he is optimistic that during the upcoming years, the PTI-led coalition government in the biggest province of the country would show more maturity and seriousness in starting and completing development projects on time and avoiding the lapse of the allocated funds.