NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 24

The ghost schools linchpin

One cannot say with certainty about the presence of ghosts in our world, but ghost schools, teachers and staff keep appearing on the country’s scene in different regions from time to time. And this time, it happened in the electoral constituency of Sardar Usman Buzdar, former chief minister of Punjab and a central leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The Punjab Anti-Corruption Establishment summoned him for questioning in the first week of April after at least 16 ghost schools were detected in the Khurar Buzdar area.

According to information shared by the ACE with the media, 14 ghost primary schools, one government girls middle school and a high school in Usman Buzdar’s area exist only on paper. The buildings of these schools are being used by members of the Buzdar family as camps and residences. The Punjab Education Department kept releasing funds for the schools, their teachers and other staff every month till the issue was highlighted in the media.

Two years back, an issue of the same nature in the Sindh province made headlines in the media, though with much more severity and at a much more larger scale. Sindh Education Minister Sardar Ali Shah disclosed in the assembly hall in January 2022 that more than 5,000 ghost schools would be ‘closed down’, which had been ‘functioning’ only on paper for over a decade in the Sukkur district. It would be interesting to note that the Sukkur district belongs to main leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party including Syed Khursheed Shah, Khalid Khan Lund, Sardar Muhammad Bux, etc. The minister admitted that the schools were being used as ‘autaak’ (guest houses) and cattle pens of the waderas.

Earlier, such reports kept pouring out of different Balochistan districts for years on a regular basis. A provincial minister, Abdul Rahim Ziaratwal, had declared in the year 2016 that there was no record of 15,000 teachers, and 900 ghost schools with almost 300,000 fake registration of students. The provincial government failed to even identify and fire the teachers for years even after coming to know about the issue.

A year earlier, in 2015, the provincial education department had fired 450 absenting teachers. Abdul Saboor Kakar, the provincial education secretary, had told the media the funding had been stopped to some 650 ghost schools and 450 teachers had been sacked, who had never taught at any school, but were drawing their salaries regularly.

In 2017, the Balochistan education authorities again admitted the presence of approximately 10,000 ghost teachers, and those attending schools casually. Balochistan Education Secretary Tayyab Lehri told the media in 2018 that at least 1,800 state-run primary, middle and high schools in the province had been found non-functional.

Zubair Torwali has been working in the fields of education and development in Balochistan for the last many years. He says that around 1.9 million children in the province are out of school and more than half (51%) of them are girls. According to statistics, 1.3 million children are missing out on secondary education. There are 11,627 primary schools and just 42 higher secondary schools, he tells Cutting Edge at a seminar.

He regrets that Balochistan has made little progress since 2013 in curtailing teacher absenteeism and identifying ghost schools. Torwali believes that the real issue is not merely budgetary allocations. The provincial authorities, both political and administrative, in fact, lack the political will and a sense of ownership as far as the education sector is concerned. Otherwise, he adds, identifying ghost schools, ghost and absent teachers and fake registration of students to secure government funds would not require more than a year. It is painful that more than five thousand ghost teachers still have been drawing salaries and getting other financial benefits for the last five years, when, for the first time, the issue was brought to light by the authorities themselves, he adds.

The educationist believes that ghost schools are constructed and ghost teachers are appointed on purpose. And that happens only in the regions where sardars, waderas, maliks and khans are strong enough to have an iron-fist control over government departments, officials, machinery as well as people as their subjects. These waderas and sardars get approved schools for their regions, only to tell the nation and the world at large how much they care for the education of their people. They oblige their handpicked people by getting them appointed to such schools, though such people, no matter teachers or other staff, never show up at such educational facilities.

These waderas and sardars use these buildings for their personal purposes, as their autaaks and cattle pens, and the funds released for these schools keep reaching the pockets of the powerful people, or their goons. One would seldom hear that ghost schools or ghost teachers were found in some urban centres, or rural regions inhabited by people free from the influence of waderas and sardars, Torwali asserts. So, the ghost schools linchpin is waderas and sardars, he believes.