How Benazir Bhutto's First Government Tried To Tackle Pakistan's Lingering Literacy Problem

How Benazir Bhutto's First Government Tried To Tackle Pakistan's Lingering Literacy Problem
After taking over the reins of power in 1993, the PPP government under the premiership of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto established an organisation named 'The Prime Minister's Literacy Commission' with the goal of achieving 100 percent literacy in 5 years.

Achieving this target entailed the formation of 200,000 home schools, also known as ‘non-formal’ schools, which are cost effective and time-efficient. It was planned to accomplish this in five years or five phases, the first phase being a pilot project of 10,000 schools.

I was appointed Chairman of the PM’s Literacy Commission in August 1995, with the primary task of setting up 10,000 home schools within a period of one year. My team and I set up a record 7,117 such non-formal schools in every nook and corner of the country (predominantly in rural areas and with female teachers, as was mandated) in a period of seven months and within 30% of the allocated budget. The task of setting up 10,000 schools could not be completed, because at the last quarter of the financial year, the budgetary release was stopped owing to financial constraints. Finances were stopped from being released.

Shaheed Benazir Bhutto used to claim this achievement as one of the hallmarks of her prematurely ousted government.

Earlier, delighted and to encourage our team, she attended a Literacy Mela organised by the PM’s Literacy Commission, along with Bilawal and Bakhtawar Bhutto, so as to better understand and witness the plight of poor children and to interact with them. My son Sarawan can also be seen in my lap in the photo.

It would be unfair not to mention the great contribution made by Ms. Shanaz Wazir Ali, the then Special Assistant to the PM on Social Sectors. She stood like a rock in support of this program. Without her vociferous encouragement and support, this initiative might have been abandoned entirely for paucity of funds and lack of inclination/commitment of some powerful quarters in the government.

After the ouster of the PPP government, I along with some literacy enthusiasts, set up an NGO named the National Literacy Movement. We organised twenty literacy centres in Kot Lakhpat, a very poor area of Lahore, and ran these schools with our own resources and a few donations. The greatest achievement of our NGO was to organise an All Parties Conference on Literacy.

As is evident from the photograph of the 'Pakistan Literacy Declaration 2001,’ it was signed by representatives of 19 political parties/organisations. One could also call it the Magna Carta on Literacy in Pakistan.

21 years have since elapsed, but no government honoured their pledge – including that of Imran Khan, who had incessantly claimed that literacy would be his first priority on coming to power. The parties/organisations whose authorized office-bearers and representatives signed the Declaration are as follows:

1) Pakistan Muslim League (N) – Sikandar Hayat Malhi (Vice-President) and Khawaja Saad Rafique (General Secretary, Punjab);

2) Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – Mairaj Mohammad Khan (General Secretary) and Hasnain Almakky (former candidate of the National Assembly);

3) Pakistan Millat Party – Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari (President);

4) Awami National Party (ANP) – Ehsan Wyne (Senior Vice-President) and Neelum Shah (President, Punjab);

5) Balochistan National Movement – Dr. Abdul Hayee Baloch (President);

6) Pakistan Muslim League (F) – Rana Mohammad Ashraf (Secretary General);

7) Istaqlal Party – Syed Manzoor Gillani (President);

8) Awami Qiadat Party (AQP) – Muhammad Mehdi;

9) Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP) – Sardar Marghoob Khetran (President, Punjab);

10) Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) – Farooq Tariq (General Secretary);

11)Jamiat-e-Ulema e Pakistan (JUP) – Dr. Javed Awan (Vice-President, Punjab);

12) Jamiat-e-Ulema e Islam – Hafiz Hussain Ahmed;

13) Pakistan Awami Party – Fanoos Gujjar (President);

14) National Workers Party – Ahmad Nawaz Wattoo;

15) Dr. Mohammad Saeed (forgot to mention his party's name);

16) Tehrik-e-Istaklal – Safdar Hassan Siddiqi (Vice-President);

17) PM’s Literacy Commission – Dr. A.Q. Ansari (Chairman);

18) Education Department – Muhammad Zawar (Managing Director) and

19) National Literacy Movement – Pervaiz Saleh (President)

The author

Presently, our educational curriculum is mostly flooded with mere bookish knowledge. It must be totally recast and focused on values, skills and students’ interests. The school must be a place where children should love to go.

It is high time we realised that illiterate and manual workers are no less intelligent than educated people. Adversities that they face in early childhood and the experiences that they undergo make them more intelligent than many educated individuals. Education is more of a social experience for them.

As envisaged in the Literacy Declaration above, education and literacy must be among the top priorities of any government, wherefore budgets on them must be substantially increased. If Pakistan is to progress, all governments must ensure that education/literacy does not remain the monopoly of the rich. Rather, the well-to-do should be heavily taxed to create budgetary space for the poor.

In my view, true democracy cannot be achieved without 100% literacy. It is indeed sad to state that even after 75 years of achieving independence, Pakistan stands at a dismal 62.8% (one of the lowest in the world).