Schools of their own ilk

Twelve years old Baasa believes he’s one of the luckiest persons in the world as he reached Abdullah Shah Ghazi mazar and joined the Footpath School working under the Bahria Icon Tower flyover two years ago. After a brief chat, he was admitted to the “school” and named Muhammad Abbas, though some of his old acquaintances still call him Baasa.


He’s doesn’t remember much about his past, except for his drug-addict abba (father) and the streets of Sher Shah and Gul Bai localities of Karachi. He abandoned his father about three years ago after receiving a severe beating one hot suffocating evening. He had failed to beg enough money that evening to buy a “puri” (heroin) and a pack of cigarettes for his father.


Though he himself also used to share these drugs with his father at a tender age of nine, he mostly disliked it and wanted to get rid of the habit. His father, Chhamma, never told him where did they come from and who was his mother. On that fateful evening, when he was severely beaten by his father, he ran out of the small hut situated on the bank of a sewerage nullah. Most of the night he kept walking the streets of Karachi and reached the mazar of Syed Abdullah Shah Ghazi in the morning.


Though some older boys would assault him from time to time, he was happy as he used to get “quality” food at the mazar, and cigarettes free-of-cost from those older boys.


Then one day, roaming around the area he saw children of his age group, and even smaller, sitting in rows under the Bahria flyover. The sight attracted him very much, giving him the courage to ask the children sitting there what was going on. And a talk of only a few minutes with the teacher had changed him from Baasa to Muhammad Abbas, a student of the Footpath School.


He was provided with a qaeda (book), and stationary and allowed to sit in the class comprising at least 50 students at that time. In the evening, he was also given a 20-rupee note “to make him come on the next day to continue his studies”. “I like it here very much; madam gives us money everyday and food too,” he says. “On Eid, we’re fortunate to get clothes too.”


Muhammad Abbas is a regular and bright student of the class now. Sitting among more than 500 students, he prepares for his seventh grade exams in 2018. He has a dream of becoming an engineer one day “to manufacture cars”.


And his teacher, Syeda Anfas Ali Zaidi, has even bigger and brighter dreams for her students. Talking to Cutting Edge by telephone, she says that the flyover, where the main “school” is working, has been here for the past couple of years, but has only been used for negative purposes, such as drug abuse or begging.


Ms. Zaidi, the president of the Ocean Welfare Organisation (OWO), is currently running one footpath school in two shifts under Bahria Icon Tower flyover, and three footpath schools at Badar Commercial area in the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Karachi. She says that the main purpose of the project is to impart education to street children in a bid to keep them away from begging, stealing and abusing drugs. “The allure of the street is too much for these children and in order to keep them away from it, the Footpath School must offer incentives”.


Ms. Zaidi says the street children she registers for education are the ones who have nothing – no parents, no homes and at times, not even clothes to wear. Hence, we have to provide them everything here, she adds. They are also offered refreshment and lunch every day by the staff at the Footpath School.


Ms. Anfas Ali Zaidi says she launched the project after the Army Public School massacre in 2014, in a bid to thwart terrorist efforts to obliterate education from young minds and instil hatred instead. To a question by Cutting Edge, she says that the secret of her success is the fact that she doesn’t wait for the ideal circumstances to occur.


However, the Footpath Schools started facing some problems and external interference during the past one year. The Sindh provincial government asked Ms. Zaidi to either hand over the Clifton school to the Sindh Education Foundation (SEF) or close it down.


Due to mounting pressure, Syeda Anfas Zaidi requested the chief justice of Pakistan to take suo motu notice of the situation. She wrote in the letter that the provincial government had collected billions of rupees in taxes as well as foreign funds from international donor agencies but failed to provide quality education facilities and opportunities to street children.


The chief justice of Pakistan came to the rescue of students of Ms. Zaidi’s Footpath Schools. He ordered in the second week of February that the footpath school in the Clifton area should continue until the authorities provide a proper place to relocate the school. A three-member bench, led by the chief justice, observed that education is a fundamental right of the country’s children that the government has to ensure, and that enforcement of providing these fundamental rights to the citizens is an obligation of the judiciary.


The NGO’s counsel said that the Sindh government was not implementing Article 25-A of the Constitution that guarantees free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16. He said that the law also stipulates that public and private schools bear the education expenses of 10 per cent of the students who cannot afford them. On the other hand, the Sindh government has enacted the Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2013, but failed to enforce it in letter and spirit due to lack of rules of business.


The apex court directed the Sindh education secretary to visit the Footpath School and ensure that it is provided with all basic facilities. The bench also barred him from closing the school, telling him to relocate it and provide it with all the necessary facilities, the plan for which must be submitted in the court in the first week of March 2018.


It is ironical that an estimated 25 million children in the country are out of school and deprived of a basic human right i.e. education. Out of them, more than 59% (6.1 million) are out of school in the Sindh province. Only 36% of all school-aged children within the age bracket of three to five years were enrolled in schools in 2016, compared with 37% in 2015. Also, 81% of all school-aged children within the age bracket of six to 16 years were enrolled in schools, leaving behind at least 19% yet to be enrolled.


Also, the schools in the province largely lack basic facilities. Some 60% of government schools had drinking water facilities, and 54% of toilets could be called usable. One of the major issues being faced by educational institutions in Sindh is lack of sanitation and water facilities.


Taking notice of this and other issues in the province, the Supreme Court had constituted a judicial commission on December 27, 2016, to investigate and improve sanitation conditions in Sindh. However, the case is still pending as the provincial government failed to submit a comprehensive report so far.


In the province, 100,000 students leave school in the first month every year due to the absence of basic facilities (such as water and sanitation). This was admitted by the provincial education department’s secretary, Dr. Iqbal Hussain Durrani, before the judicial commission.


In such circumstances, if some Syeda Anfas Zaidis comes up with the idea of a Foothpath School, they should be encouraged instead of creating hurdles in the way of the functioning of their schools.