Information Issues

Faisal Bari

I CAN always tell when Javed, a cook working in our neighbourhood, is worried about something. When I ask him how he is his worry is the first thing he mentions. And a lot of times it is about the health of his very young granddaughter. She is a healthy child. But she does fall sick once in a while. When she does, Javed’s face reveals it before his words do.

“Have you been to the doctor?” I ask. “I took her yesterday. He gave her an injection. She is better now.” Every visit to the doctor involves an injection. “But what did the doctor say? What was wrong with the child?” I ask. “She had fever and loose motions.” “Yes, those were the symptoms that made you consult the doctor. But what was causing the fever and diarrhoea?” “The doctor did not tell us anything. He just gave her an injection and she is better now.” This is more or less the typical exchange I have with Javed when his granddaughter falls sick.

Infant and child malnutrition and stunting rates are worryingly high in Pakistan. Infant and maternal mortality rates have stopped coming down as fast as they used to. The trends in nutrition, stunting and child deaths are even more worrying given that our numbers, across sources, are showing that poverty rates have been declining in Pakistan for the last couple of decades or so. If poverty is coming down, meaning people have more resources than before, what is making the child malnutrition, stunting and ill health numbers so high?

There are a number of hypotheses that are worth looking into. Drinking water quality and lack of sanitation facilities might have the power to explain a lot about health/nutrition outcomes. Reports on water quality, from across the country have recently been quite alarming. Lack of sanitation facilities, mixing of drinking water with sewage, and few toilets for defecation are linked to the spread of diseases as well.

Lack of effective immunisation as well as lack of access to effective medicines might be another issue worth looking into. The immunisation rate is still a problem. But so is the quality of medicines that immunised children get: if medicines have not been stored properly, are past their due date, or are not of the quality they are supposed to be even high immunisation rates are not going to be of much help.

Some of the literature also points towards information gaps and lack of knowledge as a possible explanatory factor. Do parents, especially mothers, know what they need to know to ensure the nutritional needs of their children? Do parents know what to do when their child is not well? Do they know how well their child is doing compared to other children at a similar stage of development and how, if their child is not doing as well, to remedy the situation?

My interaction with Javed points to the issue of poor information. Does Javed’s granddaughter become unwell too often? The doctors Javed visits, and these are usually general physicians in our locality, almost never give any feedback to Javed or the parents of the child. It is almost always an injection and/or some medicines that is administered but without the parents’ knowing what ailed their daughter and what the drugs are meant to cure.

These doctors also do not tell the parents how well or poorly the child is doing compared to other children. Javed and the parents of the child never know if three episodes of fever in 15 days is too much, if the child’s weight or height is below par or not and/or if her cranial circumference is increasing within tolerable limits. If they had this knowledge, if they do not face extreme poverty issues and if other things are constant would they not be able to make better decisions about the health of their child?

Though I have used Javed’s example, I know of too many other cases of a similar nature. Given some of the administrative work I do, I get to see how many days of the week colleagues don’t come in because a child at home is ill. The numbers tend to be substantial especially among blue-collar and unskilled workers.

In some cases, parents even delay treatment of a sick child as they cannot afford to be absent from work. But in almost all these cases when I have talked to parents, the issue of information, according to my reading of the situation, has come up in one form or another. Parents do not get proper feedback from healthcare providers; they do not know what preventive measures they can take, what medicines they can use or are given by caregivers; they do not know why their child got sick in the first place and they are almost never told how their child is doing compared to other children.

There is some research in Pakistan on the impact of poverty on nutritional outcomes and researchers have recently also started looking at connections between public good investments (water, sanitation and immunisation) and health outcomes. But we know very little about the connections between knowledge/information issues and health/nutrition outcomes. Is the last one an important issue or not? We need household-level research to figure this out.

Fortunately, information/knowledge issues can be remedied with low-cost interventions. If information/knowledge issues are also contributing to the poor outcomes we are seeing on the nutrition and health side, carefully crafted but low-cost feedback loops for parents can readily and easily remedy the situation. Given the potential, public health researchers should look at such issues on a priority basis.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 8th September, 2017.


Mobility in Urban Spaces

LAHORE’S population is estimated to be about 12 million people. If a third of these are children who go to school, 4m children need to move from their homes to school in the morning and then back again around midday. If about half the population works, around 6m people need to move from their homes to their places of work and then back in the evening. And with 12m people involved in their usual business, there is a lot of movement that needs to be catered for.

A lot of cities of this size have opted for fairly extensive public transport networks to facilitate movement. These public transport networks, usually a mix of trains and buses, provide a grid for ensuring that every part of the city is connected to every other part, directly or indirectly, keeping in mind the volume of traffic that flows and is expected to flow from one particular part to another.

A lot more people are expected to move towards business districts from residential areas in the morning. A reverse flow is expected in the evening. Evening flows might be towards parts that provide entertainment (shopping areas, theatre areas etc) and late night flows would usually be towards residential areas again. Weekend demands for facilities would be different from weekday demands and so on. All of these larger cities have very elaborate load management systems and very well-resourced planning and execution departments to ensure the smooth functioning of these large transport networks. The London transport network provides a good example of what we need to keep in mind.

There are significant differences in how people’s movement is managed in a city like London and in Lahore. Though public transport has been prioritised in Lahore over the last few years by the current government and one large project has been completed and the other, the Orange Train, is under construction, historically the model Lahore has had, by default or by design, was one of relying on private transport and privately provided public transport. Even today, the public system has only one backbone line that is functioning, the other is still under construction, and the network of connecting routes to support the backbone are still under development.

The main change that has happened in transport has not been through the public sector and/or in public transport. The main change has been the decline in the price of motorcycles. Where at one point a 70cc motorcycle was selling for Rs60,000-plus, one can now buy it for under Rs30,000. This has been one of the biggest changes in the transport area in Pakistan over the last decade or so. From selling about a few hundred thousand motorcycles a year, we have now gone to selling a couple of million-plus motorcycles. The drop in prices happened because a clone of the 70cc motorcycle was developed and we had a lot of local and Chinese manufacturers enter the market for producing these clones.

But concurrent with this development we have seen that the government has also moved in the direction of facilitating traffic flows through road broadening and infrastructure upgradation projects. The Lahore signal-free project, construction of numerous underpasses and overpasses, and the broadening of key roads have been key components here.

There are significant and real concerns that have been expressed by various stakeholders about the effects that this model is likely to have on various important environmental, social, and cultural variables. Cutting of trees to broaden roads has an environmental impact. Building concrete infrastructure near heritage sites can destroy them and even if that does not happen, it can change the ‘value’ of the heritage site significantly.

But I want to raise a separate issue too, one that has not been highlighted as much in discussions on the infrastructure development model that Lahore has been following. Signal-free corridors, underpasses and overpasses and broader roads also reshape the urban landscape completely. It has become a lot harder for pedestrians and bicycle riders to move around the city.

If you need an example, try crossing the Ferozepur Road or the Main Boulevard on foot. In some places, overhead pedestrian crossings have been made, but there are too few of them and they are not easy to negotiate. And they are not for bicycle riders. If you have to go an extra kilometre or so to cross a main road, as a pedestrian or cyclist, you are likely to be very discouraged from doing so. Not having lanes/spaces for bicyclists on the main roads is also indicative of the state’s priorities.

If the city plans to have a much larger public transport system eventually — and the bus system, the Orange line and work on support networks that are being operationalised do suggest that — then the developments through the signal-free corridor and underpasses and overpasses might work at odds with the kind of urban spaces that should be thought of, that should accompany the development of the larger public transport system.

Large public transport systems do allow for and make it possible for cities to have spaces where people can walk around or use bicycles and where private transport (cars/motorcycles) are not allowed. And these spaces can be for a lot more people environment- and culture-friendly. Even a city space as built up as Manhattan, and one can hardly think of a more concretised space, decided to close down 20 odd streets on Broadway — one of the busiest roads in the area — to vehicular traffic a few years ago in order to facilitate the development of a bicycle track, walking space and development of street cafés and street culture.

What sort of urban space development model will we go for in the larger cities of Pakistan? I hope there is sufficient debate on this and we do not make decisions by default only.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 25th August, 2017.

Registering an FIR and After

ABOUT eight years ago, a friend’s car was stolen from outside his house in Lahore. He went to the police immediately. It took all his connections and three days of effort to get a First Information Report (FIR) registered.

About a month later, he received a phone call from the concerned police station to let him know that his car had been ‘recovered’ and that he could come and collect it. The car was a bit battered and rundown, but it was all there. It seemed the police had recovered it a week or 10 days prior to calling my friend and had been using it in the meantime. It took my friend another 10 days to get possession of his car.

This would still have been a happy story had it ended there. But it did not. Since no one had been arrested or convicted for the crime of stealing my friend’s car, the FIR he had registered remained open. The car was evidence and my friend was told that he could have his car back but he would be responsible for producing it anytime the police or the courts needed it. Eight years later, my friend is still saddled with the car. He would like to sell it but he cannot. Though he has never been contacted by the police or the courts since, his possession still continues to be conditional. He could sell the car at a steep discount but my law-abiding friend is concerned: what if they ask him to produce it someday?

He did inquire about the process of getting the FIR quashed and the matter disposed of, but he felt he did not have the time, money or the connections to pull it off. He is resigned to the fact that this car will stay with him ‘till death do them part’.

Another acquaintance had a similar experience. But, eventually, after a year of spending a lot of time and money in the concerned police station and lower courts, he was able to have the authorities close the case and was then able to sell his car. But even after everything was done, he was not sure if all proceedings had been carried out legally and if the paper he had received was enough.

It is no surprise that when, quite recently, another friend’s car was stolen, he worked on ensuring that his vehicle was not recovered. Instead, he worked on getting the requisite paperwork from the concerned police station so that he could get his insurance claim processed and just buy a new car. He took a hit of a few hundred thousand rupees but he felt that the loss incurred was still more tolerable than the hassle of waiting for his car to be recovered and then going through the process of getting the FIR quashed etc.

Why do the police need the physical car as evidence even in this day and age? Could documents, photos and other evidence not be substituted for the original? There must other ways of dealing with the quashing of an FIR as well.

There has been a lot of talk, recently, of how new technology has been introduced at police stations and law enforcement, and how citizen help desks have been set up for almost everything. Yet, on issues that matter to the citizen, especially when it comes to interaction with the police station staff, almost nothing seems to have changed.

A couple of years ago, a gentleman I know was held up inside one of the ATMs he was visiting. The robbers made him use all his cards to their limit and left him poorer by a couple of hundred thousand rupees in the process. He had an FIR registered. As is usually the case, it took much effort to do so. The police asked him to get video recordings from the cameras at the ATM. The gentleman had to convince his bank to share the relevant video recording with the police station.

He visited the police station three to four weeks later to check on the progress that had been made on his case. To his astonishment, his photo was also displayed on the police station noticeboard as a wanted person. “Whoever was in the camera footage that we got, we have put their picture up. It is for the courts to decide who is guilty of these and who is not,” said the station house officer. The gentleman has never been back at the station and he has heard nothing about the case from the police. He is quite glad he has not heard back from the police.

Having facilitation desks, technology and new rules over and above an existing but archaic system does not solve problems. In fact, it complicates things further. If your car is stolen, Dolphin and other police personnel can be there in less than 10 minutes now. But if they still need an FIR first to be able to move, and the FIR is going to be registered in the old way, you are still giving the robbers a 36- to 48-hour head start, even if you are very connected. What is the point of new personnel and technology here?

Of late, I have been reading Osama Siddique’s new novel Snuffing Out the Moon. It is a historical fiction spread over six epochs: Mohenjodaro, Taxila, Jahangir’s time, 1857, 2009 and 2084. A key theme that runs through the novel is that irrespective of the form of government, the lack of space for citizens to participate effectively in governance or work out even decent, let alone optimal, governance arrangements for the people creates most of the problems that citizens face. Those in power seldom have an interest in addressing the issue, and so the citizens continue to struggle.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday August 11th, 2017.

An Educational Chasm

Faisal Bari

I WAS visiting government high schools for girls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for some research work. At each school, I would ask the head teacher if I could have an opportunity to interact with the students of grades 9/10.

At a Peshawar school, I asked Grade 9 students what they wanted to be when they finished their education. Some wanted to be doctors or teachers, a few wanted to be engineers, and one student wanted to be a pilot. The girls had a fair idea of what they would have to do, beyond school education, to get where they wanted to be.

While we were having this conversation, their teacher, a young and fairly recently recruited science graduate, started talking: “All of these girls come from very poor economic and social backgrounds. Many of them are first-time Grade 9 students in their families, their mothers are mostly illiterate, and even the fathers of many are barely literate.” Then she started pointing to some of the girls — “her father is a daily wage earner, her father sells fruit in the local area and her father is unemployed these days”. I had to quickly find a polite and respectful way of stopping her from continuing.

It was clear from the way the teacher referred to the families and the economic and social background of the students that she felt the students came from a much ‘lower’ background than she did.

This experience, of social distance between teachers and students in government schools, was repeated at a number of schools as I travelled across five to six KP districts. A few months later, I had the same experience when I visited a number of government primary and secondary schools for boys in a couple of districts of Punjab.

Teachers and head teachers in government schools generally believe that their schools get the poorest of poor children, that these children come from households where parents are not likely to be very educated or do not have a good understanding or appreciation of the value of education. They feel the parents, as well as the children, have fairly limited ambitions.

Many teachers also said that their own children were not going to government schools and were enrolled in nearby private schools; some teachers openly stated that they did not want their own children to mix with the students enrolled in their schools.

Our data does show that enrolment in the type of school (public/private) and income levels is highly correlated, and among many people from poorer households it is the first generation that is going to school, especially in the case of women.

As the private provision of schooling has expanded, people who can afford it have chosen to send their children to private schools. The trend of withdrawal from public schools by the rich and middle classes continues and is now reaching the rural areas of Punjab, KP and some parts of Sindh as well.

All provincial governments have changed teacher-recruitment policies in recent times. Entry requirements for the teaching profession have been raised to at least Bachelor’s level instead of matriculation or intermediate, teacher salaries have seen significant increases over the last 10 to 15 years, and salary scales have also been revised.

We are getting more educated and trained teachers who are better compensated and have better career paths. All of this is positive. But there are unintended consequences of policy changes as well. As we get more educated people, the latter are more likely to come from the urban rather than the rural areas.

More educated people are also likely to come from households that had a higher income in the last generation than households with lower educational attainments today. Both these factors are likely to further increase the social distance between teachers and students.

The policy of recruiting more educated teachers and compensating them at a higher level is a good one and should not be abandoned. But the issue of social distance should be addressed. The best way to do this is through changing the content and style of pre-service and in-service teacher training.

The former refers to the Bachelor’s or Master’s level degrees — B. Ed./M. Ed. Courses relating to these degrees should have a lot more content on managing issues like social distance, the needs of children from different backgrounds and students with a diversity of abilities and potential. There should also be courses on pedagogy techniques that should be employed to manage diverse classrooms. These courses will provide teachers who are training some tools to help them relate better to students hailing from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

In-service training, provided by government teachers training departments in all provinces in the form of induction training (at the start of one’s career) and continuous professional development (throughout one’s teaching career), can further consolidate the introduction and ensure we have a way of imparting modern techniques to teachers for the management of diverse classrooms throughout their careers.

Improving the quality of education for our children will require us to get more educated and better trained teachers, to compensate them at higher levels, incentivise and motivate them, and help them manage their careers well. But this can, at the same time, result in an increase in the socioeconomic and cultural distance between teachers and students in public-sector schools, especially in the rural areas.

We have to address this issue as it can undermine, significantly, our ability to reach out to and retain children from diverse backgrounds, especially those from challenging backgrounds or those facing physical, mental or learning problems. While continuing to improve the condition of teachers, the problem of social distance and its consequences should be handled through better pre-service and in-service training.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 30th June, 2017.

Is Cheating A Norm Now?

Faisal Bari

A STUDENT cheated on an examination in a colleague’s course. He was caught and his case was referred to the relevant committees for investigation and action. The family of the student started pestering the teacher of the course. Since I was head of the department, I told my colleague to ask the family to come to me if they had any issues with procedures.

The mother of the student came to meet me. She started off by saying that the student did not know what he was doing. I told her that our university made sure that all incoming students are told that we have zero tolerance for cheating and that all incoming students are given written and verbal warnings about this.

She then said that she had lost her husband very early and had been solely responsible for bringing up the young man and this charge would have a significant impact on the student’s career trajectory. I told her that since the matter was with the relevant committees, the student would have to make his case there for mitigating circumstances and/or leniency.

Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres are not going to work.

The mother then went on to tell me that one of the student’s maternal uncle was a senior DMG officer while his paternal uncle was a senior army officer and if I did not help the student, it would have consequences for me. I told her that I would ignore the last bit of what she had said and that she should leave before things got more serious. As she was leaving she said: “Cheating is normal in Pakistan. Don’t you live in Pakistan?”

It does seem that there is a lot more acceptance of cheating in the education system today than was the case a couple of decades ago. All high-stakes examinations have a high incidence of cheating. Matriculation and intermediate examinations have become quite notorious for this. But even grade 5 and grade 8 examinations that Punjab takes are known to have a lot of cheating.

This year, the issue was highlighted in Sindh where the chief minister wanted the department of education to reduce or eliminate cheating. In the end, it seemed the department was pretty helpless in the face of the strong ‘mafias’ that have been formed to facilitate cheating.

Whenever examinations are a high-stakes affair where a lot depends on its outcome, the motivation to use all means, fair or unfair, increases. Matriculation and intermediate examinations shape the career and future of students ie they determine where students can get admission and which professions they can enter. It is no wonder students want to do well in these examinations.

In Punjab, the results for grade 5 and grade 8 examinations are used to grade teachers and schools. Not surprisingly, in many instances of cheating, it is the teachers and school administrations that are themselves involved in facilitating cheating.

If we want to challenge the norm, major changes will be needed. Half-hearted efforts in the form of more police at exam centres and random but very public raids alone are not going to work.

Our examination systems need to change. Instead of relying on exanimations conducted annually or at the end of the respective course, we will need to move to more frequent and formative assessments. These are not easy to conduct when a large number of students are involved, but for better assessments, lowering the stakes attached to a single examination and for getting better measures of student learning, the move to formative and more frequent assessments is very important.

We will need to change the nature of examinations as well. Instead of relying on asking questions that test memory and/or are sourced from a particular textbook, we need to move to questions that force students to think, argue, articulate and exhibit their critical thinking skills. We need to move to examinations that are curriculum- and not textbook-based. Several examinations that I sat for in my academic career allowed us to bring any number of books and other material with us. Such examinations are more difficult to set, but they do test student abilities better.

An examination question from a philosophy paper that I fondly remember was: “The trunk of an elephant looks like a snake. Discuss”. Such a question can be answered, legitimately, from a number of perspectives: perception, language, mind, reality/appearance, and biology. What is at stake is the quality of the argument that the candidate makes, and rote learning is of little help here.

We do need to make sure that the conduct of examinations makes cheating as difficult as practically possible. Random checks by third parties are a must. Teachers should not be the invigilators of their own students. Students who are caught cheating must be punished sufficiently to have some deterrent effect on others.

But all this will not be enough. We have to work on the values in our society as well. Our moral values and norms as a society have weakened over the last three to four decades. In some ways, this is a necessary counterpart to change in societies. We have, as a society, not tried to manage change and understand what it means for our values. How we have an impact here is a longer topic and we will come back to it another day.

Cheating might not be a ‘norm’ in our society yet, but it is close to being one. To challenge it and change the current equilibrium is not an easy task. A multipronged strategy is needed that looks not only at how we set exam papers, what we examine and how we conduct examinations, but also at societal values that are in the process of making cheating normal. One measure is hard enough to implement; to do it all at once seems well nigh impossible for us right now.

From the Dawn, Karachi, published June 2nd, 2017.

Rethinking Zoos


SUZI, the lone elephant in the Lahore Zoo died last week. She lived for only 30-odd years. Even if they have lived in captivity, elephants are expected to have a lifespan of about 50 years. Suzi died early.

For the last two and a half decades, Suzi was the star attraction at the Lahore Zoo. Children love elephants. Even adults do. And by the scores that would throng to see Suzi, it was clear she had a lot of admirers. But Suzi was alone. She had been the only elephant in the Lahore Zoo for the last 25 years or so. Without any other elephants to interact with, could she have been happy? Could her life have been better if she had had someone to live these years with? Or is human admiration and interaction enough for animals to have a good life while being in captivity?

The Islamabad Zoo had two elephants sometime ago. Then one of them died. The behaviour of the other changed significantly after the death of his partner. Zoo officials responded by chaining the surviving male elephant. It took a lot of effort on the part of activists and concerned citizens to secure more humane treatment for him. Companionship and interaction with one’s kind matter for most living things. After Suzi’s death, one of the Lahore Zoo administrators said that they would, from now on, only obtain elephants in pairs.

It is not just about elephants, of course. There have been many instances of deaths in our zoos, across Pakistan, where animals have died due to neglect, cruelty, poor treatment or just poor care. The care that we provide in our zoos leaves a lot of to be desired. Do animals get proper sized cages/spaces, is their food nutritious, and are their medical needs taken care of? For those animals that need it, are proper temperature controls available? Knowing all the problems public-sector departments have, it would be a miracle if zoos had proper services for the care of their inmates. We know how our public-sector educational and health institutions meant for Pakistan’s people are performing. Would our zoos be any different?

Immanuel Kant said: “He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If humans are judged by this standard, given the way most of us treat animals in our zoos, around us and in our homes, we fall short.

Why do we need to cage animals and put them in zoos? I understand that people, especially children, derive some pleasure from watching animals, but is that sufficient reason for taking away the freedom of a living being? Would these animals not be happier in their natural habitat? There is plenty of evidence that shows animals do not like to live in captivity. So, why have zoos?

It is not the case that our zoos are research institutions where we conduct any work on understanding these animals and their lives so as to improve the lives of other beasts. Some people argue that zoos are safe environments for many of these animals and they would not survive if they had to live in their natural habitats. This too is a very tenuous argument. Clearly, zoos have not been made for the benefit of giving animals a safer environment: all zoos together have a minuscule proportion of animals of the total that exists. Zoos are also not for endangered species only. Most of the zoos in Pakistan, in fact, do not have any endangered species.

Even if we want to provide safer and more controlled environments for animals to survive and thrive in, cages seem to be a bad idea for doing that. We need to create more protected nature reserves, safari parks and so on. We need to protect our jungles and the environment in general so that animals can survive the human onslaught on nature. We need to create spaces that are for the benefit of animals. Zoos seem to be places that have been created for human pleasure and satisfaction and most of them have not been designed to be optimal environments for the animals we confine in them.

I have not invoked the issue of animal rights at all so far and have, purposefully, talked only of what is good for animals. But, the issue of rights is a serious one. Do we think animals have direct or derivative rights? If they do, and irrespective of whether these rights are direct or derivative, surely having the right not to be caged would be a part of any bill of rights. Clearly, humans should not be able to confine and cage animals just for their voyeuristic pleasure.

Most of the zoos that we have today were made a long time ago. Thinking, as to why we need zoos or why they might be good to have, dates back from that time too. But our thinking about how we can learn more about animals, about what is good for them and about animal rights has evolved a lot over the intervening period. We should have a dialogue on the need for having zoos again in our society.

Do we need zoos? If we do, what sort of zoos should we have? Are cages in the middle of the city, as is the case in Lahore, the right way to have a zoo or should we be thinking about nature reserves and safari parks? Just because we have zoos already is no reason to continue with them as they are. Suzi’s death, I hope, will trigger some debate on the issue in public as well as amongst policymakers. It should definitely happen before we get another elephant or a pair of elephants.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 19th May, 2017.