Education and youth in 2019

There was no major improvement in the lot of the youth

When the PTI assumed power in 2018, the youth had played a decisive role in its electoral success. The youth had hoped that the coming year would be the year of change for them; but sadly by the end of 2019 there have only been promises, prompting a large number of youth to come out and stage marches in various cities of Pakistan.

In the last week of November, the youth in over 30 cities in Pakistan prepared for the march. In addition to major cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, and Quetta, dozens of other cities also witnessed the mobilisation of students at a large scale. On November 29, thousands of students and youth gathered and took out marches to clamour for the fulfilment of their demands. They raised slogans and displayed placards and banners. One of the major demands written on the placards was a question asking about ‘who is responsible for the 25 million out of school children in Pakistan?’

This question made it clear that the protesting youth were not only interested in their own rights, they were also concerned about the large number of out-of-school children. This question reminds us of the basic contradictions in our society where only the privileged segments of society enjoy the fruits of education and the children of the poor are neglected. Another slogan raised by the youth was about the provision of jobs failing which the state should provide at least Rs20,000 to each unemployed young person. This demand is in response to the failure of the PTI government to fulfil its promise of generating 10 million jobs for the youth.

Many leaders of the PTI such as Murad Saeed and others had repeatedly promised that as soon as Imran Khan comes to power there will be millions of jobs for the youth. Sadly, not even a few thousand jobs have been offered to the youth.

Moreover, Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry has now clearly backtracked by announcing that providing jobs is not the government’s responsibility and the youth should not look up to the government in this regard. Such somersaults have compounded the miseries of the youth.

Another good aspect of the Youth March was that it attracted leaders of former student organisations and unions, human-rights activists, and workers’ leaders too. From Gilgit-Baltistan to Gwadar and Karachi, male and female students raised their voices. The students from Balochistan demanded that they should not be treated as terrorists. They also protested against the sexual harassment cases in the University of Balochistan and demanded justice for the victims. One of the major demands of the students and youth has been the restoration of student unions and the freedom to student organisations to work so that elected representatives of students could be involved in policy-making matters of educational institutions.

We know that students had played an important role during the freedom struggle and even sacrificed their lives for it; such names included leaders such as Bhagat Singh and many others. After the inception of Pakistan, student movements were active in both East and West Pakistan. In East Pakistan, Bengali students demanded that Bangla language be accepted and allowed as a national language. In West Pakistan, especially in Karachi of the 1950s, a student movement was led by leaders such as Dr Muhammad Sarwar, Dr Adeeb Rizvi and many others.

During the 1960s when General Ayub Khan and Nawab of Kalabagh kept colleges and universities closed for months — because the students were demanding the restoration of democracy — it was students’ organisations that led a movement against the dictatorship. During the Bhutto government, students unions were allowed to function and elections were held. But during the General Zia’s dictatorship student unions were banned and restrictions were imposed on freedom of expression. This all resulted in violence in society.

For the past almost four decades student organisations and unions are not allowed to function. Though the PPP governments, led by Benazir Bhutto in 1988 and then by Yusuf Raza Gilani in 2008, announced the restoration of student organisations and unions, practically that was not done. Whenever an organisation starts some activities, the administration of educational institutions starts punitive actions against student activists and leaders forcing them to stay away from politics. In 2019, students raised the demand for student union elections so forcefully that even the PTI government was obliged to show some willingness.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had expressed his desire to introduce a code of conduct first. This revealed that the government was still not serious about restoring student unions. The government even went a step further by initiating cases against the march leaders implicating Lala Iqbal, the father of Mashaal Khan who was killed on false blasphemy charges. Mashaal Khan was a student of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan and now his father is spearheading a struggle to promote tolerance and harmony in educational institutions. Similarly, on Dec 2, 2019, Alamgir Wazir was detained on charges of organising the march.

The state of Pakistan has also initiated cases against around 300 people including Ammar Ali Jaan, Farooq Tariq, Iqbal Lala and Alamgir Wazir who is a nephew of MNA Ali Wazir. So on one side the government talks about restoring student unions and on the other breaks all decorum to implicate the march organisers in police cases. The cases mostly allege that the marchers blocked roads and incited students against the state. Such actions indicate that at the end of 2019, there is no restoration of student unions in sight and the government is threatening the students to not get involved in politics.

The government and the state institutions should understand that politics means getting interested in the matters of the country that are close to the heart of people. Every youth should be allowed to get interested in politics because student organisations and unions provide a platform to students to vent their feelings. The way the PTI government is working against democracy and politics is a cause of concern because we are already suffering from this anti-democratic and anti-politics actions and attitudes. Interestingly, Alamgir Wazir had gone to the university to collect his degree when he was arrested.

Back in February 2019 another leader of the Progressive Youth Alliance, Rawal Asad, was also arrested and kept in detention. Before the registration of cases in December 2019 against the student activists, Punjab Governor Muhammad Sarwar had met the student leaders and had assured that student unions would be restored. But only after a couple of days, adverse actions were taken against the same leaders. It appears that the PTI government itself doesn’t know what it wants to do or say. One day they console students and the next day they arrest and malign them.

In 2019, another major demand of the students was the provision of better facilities in educational institutions. One of them is the issue of higher fees that the present government has increased. Because of the decline in the HEC funds almost all institutes of higher education are suffering from acute financial crises, whereas the government is asking them to increase their own resource mobilisation. Since the universities do not have other resources, they end up increasing the fees. On the other side, hostel facilities for students have either been withdrawn or the hostel fees have also been increased.

Most government hostels are not clean because they don’t have sufficient staff to maintain them. The kitchen facilities in hostels are also not adequate and in most hostels there is no officially maintained kitchen. This has resulted in increased expenses for students on their meals. Of course, a partial reason is high inflation but previously most government hostels had subsidised meals for students. Now with declining resources, many universities have eliminated or reduced such subsidies. Another issue is the transport facility for students that has deteriorated substantially. For example, in cities such as Karachi and Lahore there used to be hundreds of point buses.

Now you will hardly see such buses plying on roads. The available buses are overcrowded and overloaded forcing students, especially female students, to look for other options. In 2019, students also complained that the youth in other countries enjoy fastest internet services on campuses but not in Pakistan where such facilities are too expensive and especially students from poor families can hardly afford them. The same applies to the capacity of libraries with inadequate seating arrangements.

If you enter a library you see most of the seats already occupied depriving most students of an opportunity to sit and study. In the absence of public libraries in most cities, the youth look for spaces in parks and playgrounds that in most cases are in dilapidated conditions or overcrowded. For example, just look at Karachi which has an estimated population of 20 to 25 million people out of which at least 10 million are youth. These young people have no entertainment facilities, no playgrounds or even cinema houses or theatres.

The city which used to have hundreds of cinemas has a handful of them now, and that too are highly expensive meant only for the upper classes. Out of the 18 towns of Karachi established during the Musharraf regime, each had a population of over a million people. But apart from just one or two towns none had a big and well-functioning library where the youth could sit and read. So we see that in 2019, there was no major improvement in the lot of the youth, apart from promises. Only the Sindh government announced the restoration of student unions on December 2, 2019, but that too is dependent upon the needed legislation in the provincial assembly.

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Education and youth in Pakistan: 2019 presents bleak picture