Connecting KP

For those living in newly-merged districts in KP, lack of internet facilities is a huge problem: Cash transfers and online banking are difficult; students struggle with online classes and families with staying connected with loved ones who are away

The Higher Education Commission (HEC) has asked universities and colleges to shift to online classes during the Covid-19 lockdown. However, such a shift requires fast and reliable internet services. Residents of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) or Newly Merged Districts (Bajur, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, Khyber, South and North Waziristan) lack this facility. Before merging FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in 2018, the region was composed of seven tribal agencies, and Frontier Regions (FRs). Prior to the 25th Amendment, the state was running a tribal belt primarily under the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). After the repeal of the FCR, the populations in the area are eligible for the same treatment under law as the rest of Pakistan.

According to the latest census, five million persons live in NMDs. Besides online classes, the lack of internet facilities, is a hurdle in communication with those living abroad. The citizens can also not avail services like online banking or money transfer.

Scores of students belonging to the erstwhile FATA are studying in various universities of the country. After the closure of hostels the students have shifted to their hometowns. Lateef Khan, a final semester student of computer science at the University of Peshawar now living with his family in Jani Khel in North Waziristan says this puts him at a great disadvantage.

“The HEC asked us to vacate the hostels and shut the classrooms,” he says.

While students in urban areas take online classes, students of the bordering region don’t have similar access to 3G/ 4G internet. Lateef Khan and his friends have protested in Miran Shah and Wana. They have also been to Bannu to protest in front of the local press club and to Islamabad where they held a demonstration in front of the National Press Club.

Jamaima Afridi comes from Khyber district, the closest to the provincial capital. She is a law student at Benazir Women University, Peshawar. “Girls from remote districts like mine are facing many challenges,” says Afridi. “Getting education away from one’s home town is unbelievably difficult. That’s why very few of us have been admitted in Peshawar, DI Khan or Mardan,” she says. “But, ever since the pandemic closed down campuses, classes have been shifted online. In the absence of fast and reliable internet in NMDs, this excludes us”.

“The fate of these students is now in the hands of the state. The HEC is responsible for this mess. We don’t have fast internet facilities. That’s why I’ve been missing my online classes – it hurts”, she says.

She cites Imran Khan’s speech in Mohmand district, where he directed the concerned ministry to restore fast internet facilities in the NMDs. This year in March, Prime Minister Imran Khan had visited Mohmand and promised the restoration of 3G/4G internet but nothing has been done yet in this regard.

“My wife and I want to see our son daily, but there is no internet in my village. That’s why, twice every month, I come down to the city for a few minutes of video call,” says Adam Khan.

Some very resourceful students have been accessing course material through their friends living in cities for example in the form of lectures saved on USBs.

“Such solutions can only help us pass the upcoming exams. They cannot prepare us for our careers”, says Lateef Khan.

Since the war against terrorism is being fought primarily in these regions, the authorities fear the use of internet as a tool for terrorism. It is argued that the state too can use reliable and fast internet to monitor and thwart terrorist activities.

NMDs have been underdeveloped historically. Much of the terrain is not suitable for irrigated agriculture. The government has not so far encourages investors to set up industries and other businesses. There are therefore few job opportunities for the youth. Most of the local youth work in the transportation sector or seek work in Gulf countries. In many places landline and mobile phone services are not working effectively. Family elders often travel to main cities to speak to their dear ones.

Adam Khan, 67, lives in the mountainous village of Naqay in Mohmand district. His son is a driver in the UAE. When he misses his son, he comes down all the way to Charsadda. “My wife and I want to see our son daily, but there is no internet in my village. That’s why, twice every month, I come down to the city for a few minutes of video call”.

Despite the State Bank of Pakistan’s directive to encourage mobile and online banking, till date, people in the NMDs follow the manual procedures of banking. Electronic money transfer in the merged districts is still a pipe-dream. Residents of the area have to visit Peshawar, DI Khan, Bannu, Charsadda and Dir to avail these facilities.

Mir Kalam Wazir is a member of the Provincial Assembly elected from North Waziristan. He says the policy-makers should treat Islamabad and the NMDs similarly. He says that following the successful military operations, the region is free of terrorists and militants. He says thousands of students are missing online classes on account of the missing internet facilities. Wazir has written a letter to the HEC chairman asking why the provincial government has not provided fast and reliable internet services to the residents. He says the reason for not providing fast internet is the frequent violations e human rights in the tribal regions. “The district administration is afraid that once the internet facility is availability, the educated youth will report such violations using the internet.”

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist. He tweets @theraufkhan

Coronavirus: Students in NMDs face problems in online classes