Manzoor Ahmad is not unaware of the importance of education, especially for girls. His nephew is a schoolteacher and he knows that he is “well-off” among all his close relatives. Therefore, he is very much convinced that all his four children, one son and three daughters, in the age group of five to 14 years, must get an education to the maximum level. But he feels helpless when it comes to sending them to school on their own, in the absence of a proper conveyance.
He is a butcher and lives at Chak No 338/HR, tehsil Fort Abbas in district Bahawalnagar. He believes in strictly following Sharia, hence no profiteering, and a very humble living. Mostly, he buys animals on credit and pays off the price after selling meat. He enjoys a good reputation among people of the area, so he continues his business one way or the other. But he doesn’t have enough resources to purchase a motorcycle. “And even if I get one on instalments, I am doubtful about its regular use due to expensive fuel and uncertain schedule,” he shares his grievances with Cutting Edge.
Manzoor Ahmad’s village has middle schools for boys and girls, but almost 50% of teacher vacancies remain unfilled. “Neither my children are brilliant enough to learn their lessons on their own, only by sitting in classes, without the help of teachers, nor I have resources to provide them a pick up and drop off service at school at Chak No 319/HR (Marot), almost 17 kilometres away from my village, where a sufficient number of teachers are available to teach all classes regularly,” the man in his early 40s explains.
Chaudhry Rasheed Ahmad, a dweller of a nearby Chak No 330/HR, with the same grievances, seems more aware of the situation of government schools. “I have five daughters and one son, and they all are students of difference classes. Never in our village schools all teacher vacancies are filled,” Rasheed Ahmad, a small farmer, tells Cutting Edge. “We have a high school for girls in our village, but only six teachers are serving there currently,” Rasheed Ahmad says. “Do you think six teachers can teach students of all 11 classes – Katchi (pre-school) plus 10 classes, or only handle them properly,” he raises a genuine question.
The man, who himself studied until eight class, also wants to send his daughters to a better school in the area, Govt Higher Secondary School for Girls, Chak No 319/HR, Marot, but it is situated almost 16-17 kilometres away from his village. There’s no public transport facility for it and Rasheed Ahmad also lacks resources to give his daughters a pick up and drop off facility to help them get a better education.
However, he has a suggestion to offer to authorities concerned. “Almost 22 villages, from Chak No 318/HR to 340/HR, are situated on both sides of the Hakra Right (HR) canal, in an almost 30-kilometre area before the start of Cholistan. If the education authorities are unable to fill teacher vacancies in all schools of the area, they themselves, or some philanthropists, should arrange for two, three student-only buses. It would resolve the issue to a great extent,” Rasheed Ahmad says.
“I believe it would increase enrolment in schools manifold and the literacy rate in this most neglected far-off area of southern Punjab,” adds the education-loving farmer.
A post-budget meeting in Lahore endorsed the complaints of Manzoor Ahmad and Rasheed Ahmad that a majority of schools in remote districts of Punjab are running with a small number of teachers. Ziaur Rehman, the chief executive of AwazCDS-Pakistan, told the meeting that at least 81,000 vacancies of teachers in schools of Punjab are vacant currently, while the budget 2021-22 made no allocation for the recruitment of new teachers.
The Awaz Foundation Pakistan is a not-for-profit, non-governmental, developmental and human rights organisation, working for socioeconomic development and political empowerment of marginalised communities, especially women and young people, in the country. The meeting, organised by AwazCDS-Pakistan, in collaboration with the Punjab Legislatures Core Group on Education, was attended by 14 community education champions on girls’ right to quality secondary education, representing southern districts of Punjab as well as 32 members of the Punjab Assembly.
The community education champions expressed their disappointment over lack of girls’ schools in south Punjab districts. They also seconded the grievances of Manzoor Ahmad and Rasheed Ahmad that no appropriate transport facilities are available in remote districts, like Rajanpur, Dera Ghazi Khan, Layyah, Bhakkar, Jhang, Mianwali, Lodhran, Bahawalnagar, Vehari, Khanewal, Bahawalpur, Multan and Muzaffargarh.
Ziaur Rehman regretted that 5.3 million girls were already out of school in Punjab, whereas 32% had left school during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, Qaiser Rashid, additional secretary Planning & Budget for School Education Department, told the meeting the government had released Rs14 billion to impart education to 400,000 girls, attending schools for the last three years. The cabinet had approved the allocation in the last meeting and the amount would be delivered through the Punjab Social Protection Authority.
Ayesha Nawaz, chairperson Standing Committee on School Education, told the participants that the Punjab Free & Compulsory Education Amendment Act 2020 was with the Education Standing Committee currently, and the members would soon approve its enactment in selected districts. Under the act, every private school would have to provide free education up to 20% of its total students and it would provide access to poor parents to enrol their children, especially girls, in nearby private schools for free, she said.
The Punjab Schools Education Department also claims increasing the education budget for the financial year 2021-22. A spokesperson for the department said the provincial government had allocated Rs442 billion for education this year, with an increase of 13% compared with the last year. The government proposed Rs54.22b for development expenditure and Rs388b for current expenses, while the spending on education would be 17% of the total Punjab budget.
Talking to Cutting Edge by telephone, the official said that out of the Rs54.22b development outlay, Rs33b had been set aside for school education, Rs15.065b for higher education, Rs755 million for special education, and Rs 2.9b for literacy and informal basic education.
He said that during the year 25% of primary schools i.e. 8,360 would be given the status of elementary schools and around 40% of the schools were situated in south Punjab. Over Rs6.5b had been earmarked for the upgrade of schools to bring around 2m students back to schools, he added.
The provincial government sanctioned Rs23b for schools being run under the Punjab Education Foundation, and the Punjab Education Initiative Management Authority (PEIMA) to help 33m students.
Also, a Rs15b development budget has been set aside for higher education, posting an increase of around 285% compared to the previous year. The government has also accorded approval to set up universities in eight districts – Attock, Gujranwala, Rajanpur, Pakpattan, Hafizabad, Bhakkar, Layyah and Sialkot – while seven more universities would be set up in Bahawalnagar, Toba Tek Singh, Muzaffargarh, DG Khan, Kasur and Sheikhupura. Over Rs17b funds have been specified for the establishment of an engineering and technology university in Sialkot. The government will establish 86 new colleges in different districts of the province.
Muhammad Arshad, the representative of Manzoor Ahmad and Rasheed Ahmad in the Punjab Assembly, elected from PP-244 (Bahawalnagar-VIII), has good news to share with the area people. He tells Cutting Edge by telephone that a decision has been made in principle that all teacher vacancies in southern Punjab districts, including Bahawalnagar, will be filled soon, on a temporary and local basis. He disclosed that educated locals would be appointed to schools as teachers to solve the problem of their transfer every other month. “Efforts will be made to select educated persons from among the applicants to fill the vacant posts through a specially designed mechanism, approved by the higher authorities, without going through the process of the Punjab Public Service Commission,” the MPA elaborates. He claimed that where persons with professional education degrees were not available, local people with qualifications, like MA, BA, FA or even matriculation, would be hired to fill the vacancies on a temporary basis and with lesser salaries. Arshad said it was a stopgap arrangement, which was being adopted to avoid education losses in underdeveloped districts, and it might continue till the appointment of professionally qualified teachers.
However, the MPA, affiliated with the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), does not agree with the idea of running student-only buses in Marot region of Fort Abbas tehsil. He believes buses’ management and their running cost would not be affordable, even if philanthropists donate them or the School Education Department purchases them.