EducationFeaturedVolume 13 Issue # 20

Refusing to give up the ghost

The “ghost” has refused to die. It is resurrected every other week and every other month, and we come to know that more ghost schools and more ghost teachers have been found in the country. Sometimes in Sindh, sometimes in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and sometimes even in Punjab; ghost schools may be found anywhere in the country.


Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have suffered from these ghosts also, but rural Sindh and Balochistan, being sparsely populated, have been the main victim during the past decades.


The latest report on the ghosts has been received from Sindh and Balochistan provinces. The national media reported last month (April 27, 2018) that the issue of over 2,350 ghost schools is still lingering, for the past 10-11 years. The federal Ministry of Education and its attached department are sitting on an inquiry into these ghost schools for over a decade, causing more than Rs. 225 million annual losses to the national exchequer, a special audit ordered by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), revealed in the second week of April 2018.


An official privy to the findings of the report told Cutting Edge that the ghost “One-teacher one-room” community schools did not only cause losses to the tune of billions to the national exchequer, but also deprived thousands of poor students of their right to education. However, those responsible for the loss have not been held accountable so far, despite passage of years. These schools, meant for the poorest of the poor, were operated by the federal education ministry under Basic Education Community Schools Programme (BECS).


An official, who does not want to be named, has various startling details. Quoting one example of how the department is operating in far-flung areas of the country, he said that a single BECS official, Ghaffar Shah, kept pocketing salaries of 31 ghost schools for more than one year, from July 2010 to October 2011. The scam was unearthed by the National Accountability Bureau, Balochistan, according to the official.


The fresh special audit report was compiled by DG Federal Audit in April 2018, though its presentation in the PAC is still awaited. The audit revealed that about 2,007 ghost schools, being operated by the ministry under BECS, were confirmed as fake through a third-party audit in March 2012, but so far no action has been taken against those responsible and no details were shared with the fresh team of Directorate General Audit, which compiled the fresh report last month.


According to the official, another batch of 349 ghost schools was identified in 2012 in Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, Balochistan, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Gilgit-Baltistan(GB), but a special inquiry committee of the Ministry of Federal Education has so far failed to submit its report, which was due on January 21, 2016. The committee was constituted on December 23, 2015, comprising the ministry officials, Kanwal Javed, Rahim Dad Dhari and Hameed Niazi, but the findings of the committee are awaited till date.


The official website says that the Basic Education Community Schools programme is a project of the ministry, currently running 12,304 one-teacher schools across the country with an enrolment of 493,972 students from backward areas. However, in the absence of proper control, the project is marred by corruption allegations and the PAC had repeatedly taken notice of irregularities after damning audit reports.


The issue of ghost schools and ghost teachers is not limited to BECS programme only. Another report was released in 2015 by Mishal, an education initiative, in this regard. It revealed that over 40,000 ghost teachers and 5,229 ghost schools remain unaddressed in Sindh.


The issue of ghost schools and teachers comes up before the elected representatives from time to time, though no solid and implementable policy has so far been formed. Last year in July, the Sindh legislature was informed that close to three million children are out of school across the province.


Jam Mehtab Dahar, Sindh education minister, told the house in response to a question: “There are 2,876,324 children … who are out of school.” Relating reasons for such a large number of out-of-school children in the province, the minister said the Education Department was facing numerous difficulties in reopening the ghost schools.


Mr. Dahar disclosed: “Around 1,200 schools are not in a condition to function.” He said that around 5,600 schools were closed in different Sindh districts, of which 1,700 have been reopened. He had expressed confidence that the education department would succeed in restarting 80% of the closed schools by end of 2017.


However, when Cutting Edge contacted the education minister office by telephone, a spokesman admitted that no consolidated data was available showing that how many ghost and closed schools were reopened in the year 2017. However, he claimed that Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah also showed special interest and ordered reopening of 2,000 ghost schools last year.


The official admitted that the closed schools lacked complete infrastructure, furniture or other necessary facilities. Regretting corruption and corrupt elements in the department, he said if 50% of the budgetary allocations for development, repair and maintenance were fairly spent, no school in Sindh would remain without a roof and boundary walls.


The spokesman said that the education minister had launched a campaign to purge the department of corruption and corrupt officials. He claimed that all 250 schools, set up under the Rural Based Community Schools (RBCS) programme in different district, have been made functional again. These schools have been handed over to 10 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which will work as partners with the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF) to run these schools and impart quality education to children in rural areas.


However, minister’s clarifications and claims appear insufficient to satisfy not only the opposition but also treasury members. Lawmakers in the Sindh Assembly lashed out at the Education Department’s failure to live up to its pledges of developing education infrastructure and providing quality education in the province.


PPP MPA Khursheed Junejo, during a discussion on the budget, said, “Only a few days are left for this Assembly and the government to complete its tenure, but we have not re-opened ghost schools in the province”. He suggested that the education minister should prepare a list of ghost schools which are being used as the autaq [guestrooms] of waderas so that the next government could resolve the issue once and for all.


In the last session of the provincial assembly, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf MPA Samar Ali Khan announced that he would not contest the upcoming general elections as he failed to build schools and renovate the existing ones in his constituency as per his commitment.


He claimed that he received a “chit” from someone which said “adi” (sister) has ordered to stop such projects. “I was hurt when I received this message from adi,” he said, without naming anyone. Apparently he was referring to Faryal Talpur, sister of PPP Co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari, as she is widely referred to as “adi”.


Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F) MPA, Mahtab Akbar Rashdi, a bureaucrat-turned-politician, regretted that nine departments of the government did not spend a single penny in the first nine months, which was very unfortunate. These funds have almost lapsed, but no schools were reopened and no new schools were established, she added.


The MPA regretted that for the last four budgets, the provincial government had been announcing establishment of Cambridge and comprehensive schools in the province, but the funds always remained unutilised and no practical steps were ever taken.


How can education be promoted in Sindh, and ghost schools and ghost teachers’ issues could be resolved if “Adi” would continue delivering chits ordering not to spend money on construction of schools, is a valid question for Oxford-graduate PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.