The Punjab government budget 2011-12 shows that Rs 3 billion has been allocated for Danish Schools. This amount would have been sufficient to upgrade 660 existing government primary schools to middle schools or 500 government middle schools to high schools. The cost, per child per month, for Danish School is Rs 16,000, while it is Rs 1,600 for every child that goes to a regular government school. The figures in this article are from a presentation made by Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (ISAPS), but the arguments are not attributable to them.
Are the children going to regular government schools not Pakistani children? Given the state of the majority of government schools in the country, should Rs 3 billion be allocated for Danish schools? Some argue that talented children from poorer backgrounds also deserve high quality education. Hard to dispute that. Do the 46,000 public schools in the Punjab have no talented children? Irrespective of the decision that the government eventually takes, the question is have we had enough discussion on these issues, in the public space, to allow the government the comfort to take a decision like this?
The question is not just about Danish schools and the Rs 3 billion that has been allocated for it. It goes across areas and across all governments in Pakistan. I am going to take examples from the education field and from the Punjab just to make the point specific though. The issue is really of how information is shared with people, how debate and discussion happens or does not, and then how decisions are taken. Across the board, it seems that the government is not open enough, does not share information, and does not encourage debate. This, obviously, can lead to ineffective decision making and is against the spirit of accountability, transparency and democratic dispensation.
There were some 2000 schools that had been damaged, partially or more, in the floods in the Punjab. Estimated costs, for repairs, were Rs 2 billion. The government of the Punjab has not allocated a single rupee for these repairs in the provincial budget. All schools that have been repaired so far have been repaired with money from various donors. There might be funds under other heads, such as missing facilities provision and/or upgradation of schools programme that might go to the flood-damaged schools but the government has chosen not to have any specific allocations for fixing flood-damaged schools.
Rs 6 billion has been allocated for Punjab Education Foundation (PEF). This is public money that is going to private schools in the province. Again, the question: is this the best use of this money, is pertinent. And again, it is the lack of debate on the issue that is the question. Percentage of education budget going to private institutions has gone from 6 percent in 2008-09 to about 11 percent in 2011-12.
The education budget has also gone almost completely in the direction of ‘block allocations’. Where block allocations were a mere 9 percent in the development budget in the 1999-2000, they are up to 90 percent of the budget now. Block allocations tend to go up in the year prior to elections, but to have 90 percent of budget under block allocations is unacceptable. Block allocations allow tremendous discretion to the politicians and bureaucrats to move funds around within the purpose stated for the block. This discretion makes the budget that much less transparent and it makes holding government accountable harder as well. In addition, the discretionary space also opens up the possibilities of nepotism, favouritism, and corruption.
For example, there is a block allocation of Rs 3 billion for provision of missing facilities in primary and elementary schools in the Punjab. But it is not specified which schools have been selected and how that is going to happen. Would it be possible for the government in power to move the bulk of this grant to areas from where their own candidates have been elected and starve areas from where opposition candidates won the last elections? But should that be a criterion in such selection?
It is interesting that the chief minister had given a well advertised ‘school reforms roadmap’ for proposed reforms in the public sector education system earlier in 2011, and budget 2011-12 made a block allocation of Rs 3 billion for the reforms roadmap. But what is intriguing is that so far, though the first quarter of 2011-12 is coming to a close, not a single rupee has been released out of the Rs 3 billion that had been allocated under the head. Has the reform programme been put on hold? Or is there another reason for the lack of funding.
The same is the case with funds for a number of other block allocations. Rs 1.5 billion was allocated for fast moving schemes, but no money has been released. Rs 350 million was allocated for upgradation of schools, but again, no money has so far been released. Rs 400 million was allocated under repair of ‘dangerous buildings’ head, and again, there have been no releases under this head.
Though all of the examples above were from the Punjab budget, and from the education sector, the point being made is larger and goes across all levels and sectors of government. For example, consider the relative secrecy under which the recent FATA and PATA regulation regarding ‘action in aid of civil power’ have been issued. It is an extremely important regulation that breaks new ground and challenges, many argue, some of the fundamentals of our constitution as well as legal requirements on fair trials, validity of evidence and so on, yet, the government did not have consultations with lawyer groups, civil society and/or the citizens before the regulation was signed. Now that the law is here, the only recourse open, for a challenge, is to take the road to the courts. Prior discussion between these groups could, potentially, have addressed the concerns of citizens and could even have garnered, possibly, more of a buy-in from these groups.
The government not only has a responsibility to do the right thing, it has the responsibility to provide relevant information to the people, involve people in debate and decision making, and ensure that it offers itself to the people for being held accountable for its decisions and how they were implemented. Despite the restoration of the democratic system 3-4 years ago, we do not seem to be making sustained efforts in the direction of reforming governance and decision-making mechanisms in the country. This not only leads to poor decision making, it leads to poor governance too, and it gives a bad name to democracy. One real challenge, for the state in Pakistan, is about reforming the governance system to allow for more transparency and accountability and more open and participatory debate for the citizens of the country.
From Pakistan Today, Pakistan, Tuesday August 30th, 2011