Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Does Pakistan need more mosques or schools or toilets?

This piece is not about the increasing or decreasing enrolments in Pakistani faith-based, state or private schools, nor about the role of faith-based schools or places of worship in a society, nor about the social fabric of Pakistan, nor does it imply an either/or proposition but it is to mull over the mismatch in critical priorities for national growth, development, and social justice and empowerment.

Places of worship have a central role in all religions. Mosques are not just mere places of worship in Islam but are also meant to be social institutions, community centres, welfare centres, and fraternal and institutional coalitions to confirm the holistic concept of Islamic faith. It is hard to suggest here a total number of mosques in Pakistan that is based on publicly verifiable data. However, with about 95-97% population being Muslim, Pakistan has mosques just about any place and if you have lived somewhere and return to your old neighbourhood after some time, you are bound to find old mosques grown bigger and new ones sprung up, probably faster than the rate of population growth. People are happy to donate land, labour and capital to build mosques and they will be keen to fight tooth and nail and even defy the law to ensure that the mosque gets built or stays under the control of their respective sects. However, people seldom wonder whether mosques in Pakistan today serve their actual raison-d’être and role in society? Or have they decayed into citadels of sectarianism and business enterprises of professional mullahs? Is it possible today for any scholar to communicate the real message of Islam from a mosque in Pakistan? Should the government supervise all mosques in the country to restore their role in society or should it let the mullah make a business of the religion?

Likewise, faith-based schools have always existed and still remain important for all religions. But while faith-based schools for most faiths have become culturally diverse, academically excellent, and even combined/integrated secular-religious schools in other countries over time, the Islamic faith-based schools (madrassas) in Pakistan have lagged behind. There are no reliable data and consensus on the number of madrassas in Pakistan and estimates for registered madrassas range from ten to twenty thousand. Madrassa enrollment figures in the popular press and institutional reports are often inflated, as these tend to rely on interviews with policymakers or police and are often unsubstantiated. A major study sponsored by the World Bank found that madrassa enrolment constitutes a very small, barely 1% (i.e. 0.7% of all enrolled children between the ages of 5 and 19), share of the full-time educational system. It is probable though that the percentage of madrassa enrolment may be marginally higher than the census-based estimates if all registered and unregistered madrassas were factored in, but it would still likely lie within the range of 1 to 3% of all children in the educational system and nowhere closer to the numbers cited in the popular press. The share of madrassas in total enrollment in Pakistan declined before 1975 and has increased slowly since then, though it has remained stable since 2001. Even in the Pakistani districts that border Afghanistan where madrassa enrollment is the highest, it is less than 7.5% of total enrolment and even among the less than 1% of families with children in madrassas, more than 75% send their other children to private or public schools. Again, there is little evidence supporting the common perception that households that do not have other schooling options or are religiously-minded would send their children to religious schools, although poorer and less-educated households are likely to do so in settlements without a public or private school; however the households there are still more likely to drop out completely in such a situation. This brings us to the more sensitive and often overlooked questions about the state of Pakistan’s educational system itself; (e.g.) whether the government would or could modernize all faith-based schools in the country, or integrate them into the public school system, or use multiple religious scriptures in the faith-based schools to teach human rights, women rights and the non-Muslim rights in the country?

Class room of a ghost school (credits: Ziyah Gafic)
The educational landscape of Pakistan has changed significantly in the past two decades due to an explosive growth of private schools. The World Bank estimates that government schools account for about 73% of all enrolment in Pakistan whereas the private schools and madrassas account for 26% and 1% of enrolment respectively. The problems with state education system get further compounded with the issue of ghost schools. A survey done in the late 1990s found thousands of ghost schools and fake teachers across the country, just 4,000 ghost schools and 20,453 fake teachers in the largest province of Punjab alone costing the public exchequer about Rs. 1.4 billion a year. With the decadent state schools and educational void, the most popular alternative to government schooling in Pakistan now is a private school and not a madrassa. Consequently, the past two decades have seen a strong growth in the British GCSE O and A levels and American schooling in Pakistan. While this opens up study abroad and career opportunities for few students, as according to the International Consultants for Education & Fairs, 46,000 Pakistani students were pursuing an education abroad in the 2010-11 academic year, yet it also underscores the incompetence and incapacity of the government to deliver quality education to its people. Nature abhors vacuum – so the growth of private schools is understandable but subjecting own population to foreign curricula and foreign systems of education not just reinforces the class divide but also sows seeds of perpetual discord in society. It lies on the borderline of modern colonialism to which the people are being made to submit largely out of necessity. Can a society survive or thrive without a foundation that protects and promotes its indigenous languages, cultures and values but by just hinging on borrowed scaffolding? Has the government abdicated its responsibility to provide quality education, water, sanitation and other social services to its entire people and would the government care to provide a fair-go to all and a level-playing field to everyone?

According to the World Bank, Pakistan spent 2.4% of its GDP on education and 2.2% of its GDP on health in 2010. Estimates suggest that Pakistan needed to spend at least 10% of its GDP on education, health, water and sanitation to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, which remain afar now.

A pond outside a village in Thar, Sindh (credits: Amar Guriro)
Water and sanitation (WatSAN) is one of the most neglected sectors in Pakistan. The government spending in WatSAN is the lowest compared to other social sector spendings and was about 0.3% of the GDP in 2010. Most drinking water in Pakistan is contaminated and people generally do not boil their drinking water either. According to the National Water Quality Monitoring Programme, the bacterial contamination of drinking water in 2004 ranged from 48% in Islamabad to 100% in Ziarat and several major cities across the country also had unsafe levels of arsenic, nitrates and fluoride in their drinking water supplies. Similarly, thousands of households lack toilets and adequate sanitation systems. WHO and UNICEF report that about 4.5% of all open defaecations in the world happen in Pakistan. Although a global decline in open defaecation has been recorded in the past two decades, some 1.1 billion people still defaecate in the open, with Pakistan among the top ten countries. According to the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, 43% of the rural population in Punjab had access to flush toilet in 2005 followed by 32% of KPK rural, 17% of Sindh rural and 7% of Balochistan rural whereas the use of non-flush toilets and open defaecations was highest in Sindh rural, followed by Balochistan rural and Punjab rural. Moreover, about 38.5 million people in Pakistan lacked access to safe drinking water and about 50.7 million people lacked access to adequate sanitation in 2005, and if the trend continues, 52.8 million people will be deprived of safe drinking water and 43.2 million people will have no access to adequate sanitation by 2015. So at the current rate of population growth, about 4 million people each year will require additional clean water and sanitation facilities.

Access to basic services (credits: Orangi Pilot Project, HI)
Access to safe water and sanitation services in several rural areas remains a serious problem in Pakistan. People may have to walk few miles every day to school or to fetch drinking water or to relieve themselves, and lack of sanitation services especially in rural schools constrains many girls from continuing their education and contributes to their drop out. Some may argue that the practice of open defaecation is a rigid behaviour in several communities, as it not only goes with their traditional belief that it keeps the land fertile but it is also a taboo to talk about human excreta. However, this argument does not hold for poor water and sanitation services in urban areas with better literacy levels or in market places or on highways. Garbage disposal systems, and water and sanitation services in large metropolitan cities including the national capital are at best dysfunctional, and there is a strong need for civic sense and responsible living, individually and collectively.

Unsafe drinking water, improper disposal of human excreta, lack of personal and food hygiene and improper disposal of solid and liquid waste contribute to the heavy burden of communicable diseases in developing countries. For instance, unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation contribute to continued transmission of viral hepatitis A and E in Pakistan. Research suggests that almost all persons living in Pakistan get infected with hepatitis A virus by age 15 years. Sporadic infections and outbreaks due to hepatitis E are also common, and the risks of transmission are significantly higher in prisons. It is no surprise, taking into account that at least one person in each household is also infected with hepatitis B or C, that experts warn that Pakistan may be becoming a cirrhotic state (medically speaking). Similarly, open defaecations not only contaminate water sources like lakes, ponds and wells especially during the rainy season increasing the risk of water- and food-borne diseases including diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, worm infestations and hepatitis, but these also provide a breeding ground for insects or flies increasing the potential risk of malaria, dengue, trachoma, skin or other infections. Past outbreaks of hepatitis E in Islamabad (1993-94), Rawalpindi (2009) and Karachi, typhoid in a village outside Karachi (2004), dengue in Lahore (2011), and naegleria fowleri in Karachi (2012) are testimonies to poor water and sanitation systems.

Poor water and sanitation services carry economic, health-related, quality of life and tourism costs. A study by the Asian Development Bank estimated the total economic cost of poor water and sanitation services for the year 2006 as US$5.7 billion, which equals about 3.9% of  Pakistan’s GDP. Health impacts accounted for the vast majority (87.2% or 3.4% of the GDP) of the estimated total economic costs, with premature mortality, productivity losses due to illness and healthcare costs or costs of treatment being major contributors to the health-related costs. According to UNICEF, 20-40% of bed occupancy in the Pakistani hospitals is due to water-borne diseases which account for about 80% of the morbidity and 33% of the mortality in Pakistan. Moreover, one must not forget that poor sanitation deters tourists and cripples the promotional efforts for a country’s image whereas quality water and sanitation services sustain tourism and add value to the national image.

Individual and collective responsibility for social work and services is important. One may recall how Benjamin Franklin applied his observations and experiences from his trips abroad and insisted that Philadelphia streets were paved, kept clean and better lighted. Similarly, as Islam ordains Muslims to purify themselves, physically and spiritually, and the Holy Prophet (pbuh) taught that “cleanliness is half of Faith” then such a reckless attitude toward water and sanitation by the ‘faithful’ of the Islamic Republic is not tenable!

Pakistan remains far from achieving the targets set under the Millennium Development Goals and has to make some rational choices for the future. The World Bank suggests that increasing the number of women who complete secondary education by mere 1% boosts annual per capita income growth by 3%, and Dr. Amartya Sen argued that “perhaps there is no clearer route to economic development, political stability, and ultimately peace, than education.” Similarly, no innovation has done more to improve health than improved sanitation (and vaccination). Investing in safe water supply and adequate sanitation is not only a development-oriented strategy in itself, but it has a multiplier effect through improved health status, reduced burden of disease and corresponding socioeconomic dividends. So, the need for provision of safe drinking water and adequate sanitation can not be over-emphasized. One must ask whether the National Drinking Water and Sanitation policies have failed and need a touch of realism? Is the government prepared to profit from the youth bulge by providing them the right services or are the demographic dividends being squandered? Should the government give priority to the issue of poor water and sanitation and come up with appropriate investments, if it wishes to improve the health of its people and attract tourism and investment? Should the government ensure quality schools and adequate sanitation systems in both rural and urban parts of the country, with easy access to functioning public toilets, waste disposal and behaviour change communications to modify the risk behaviours of littering or open defaecations and to promote education and clean habitation – or – might it let the citadels of hate and bigotry flourish!?

After all, what do the people of Pakistan want Pakistan to look like 10 or 15 years from now?

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