By Zubeida Mustafa
ACCORDING to the 2017 census report, nearly 63 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives in the rural areas. For a developing country, this poses many challenges in terms of equity and disparity in the distribution of resources and development funds and planning expertise. As is economically feasible, more attention is paid to the development of urban areas. They are the seat of government where population density makes the development process more cost-effective due to the economies of scale. Since the rural areas don’t offer similar advantages they suffer, notwithstanding their larger population.
But that doesn’t justify the neglect of the rural hinterland. Such an approach has a damaging impact on the lives of more people. Given the government’s limited resources, it cannot divert huge amounts from the cities to disadvantaged regions where the population is scattered. As a result, the country is experiencing a high urbanisation rate as people move in large numbers to the cities from villages, creating problems of another kind. Moreover, this unplanned transfer of population upsets planning.
The worst affected in this distressing situation is the rural education sector. Small wonder illiteracy is high and school enrolment low in the countryside. In view of the nature of the migration — it is destabilising with families constantly movi ng to and fro — innovative projects will have to be designed to neutralise the negative effect of this phenomenon on the youth’s education.
Various ideas have been floated in this context. When Kaiser Bengali was an adviser to the Sindh government, I remember him suggesting on many occasions that residential schools be set up all over the province for children in areas where the population was dispersed.
The unplanned transfer of population upsets planning.
Prof Wahid Bakhsh Buzdar of the Quaid-e-Azam University has another idea. The population living in small communities in Balochistan should be resettled in bigger settlements where it would be feasible to set up schools and other amenities.
There are two projects I visited recently that seem to be working and are likely to make a tremendous impact if sustained. One is the Koohi Goth hospital set up by Dr Shershah Syed, the renowned gynaecologist, in Malir where midwives and nurses are trained. This is a modern 50-bed hospital with residential accommodation for over 200 young women who have to live on the premises for the duration of the course — nearly two years.
Coming from all over Sindh — 160 at present — the trainees are finding their stay at Koohi Goth an enriching experience. They are receiving good education and practical training which they could never have hoped to have acquired back in their village. They are also learning life skills, ie how to interact with people of diverse socio-linguistic backgrounds. Tutors instil confidence in them, teaching them how to express themselves and become community leaders in their own way. Many have already fought brave battles back home to reach Koohi Goth. They all hope to transform their villages when they complete their training and return home. The Public Private Health Initiative helps by sponsoring 50 girls every year.
Another similar social experiment I saw was at the Korangi Academy, a high grade school set up at the far end of the area and run by the Infaq Foundation. Educating children from neighbouring communities, the school launched its Outreach Programme in 2014. In three years, OPR had enrolled 40 students from the Sindh countryside. They were fully financed by Infaq and provided accommodation at the school. The programme continues but now on a self-financing basis. It is hoped that those enrolled will ultimately go back to their villages and become agents of change.
With the government failing to upgrade and expand its education system people are losing faith in those who are supposed to provide what is the basic right of our children. The demand for education is being largely met by the private sector — both non-profit and for-profit — but as can be expected the rural areas are not where the private sector wants to go. We do have a handful of organisations like The Citizens Foundation and the Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust that are urban-based but reaching out to the rural areas in an attempt to uplift them.
It is also important that entrepreneurs-cum-philanthropists set up small cottage industries in rural areas. There is a need to explore the feasibility of establishing small projects that are not too power intensive but need trained manpower. In other regions, the food-processing industry, units for cellphone and computer repairs and the manufacture of light machines provide jobs to hundreds of thousands. These could absorb the young men and women who acquire education in big cities but return home to work. Thus new economic activities would bring to life our stagnating rural areas only if the education issue is addressed.