HUNZA has been a role model for the rest of Pakistan in terms of its high literacy rate and school enrolment figures. According to one estimate, the literacy rate of Hunza is around 90 per cent, which becomes even more impressive when we consider the geographical location and complex terrain of the area.
Despite the fact that schools are difficult to approach and meagre resources are available, it is remarkable that the literacy rate is far higher than the national literacy rate which, according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Survey 2007-8, is 56 per cent.
One of the primary reasons for this is people`s tremendous interest in education. The education of children is considered a prime investment by the people of Hunza. That is why, instead of spending money on better living, they prefer to spend on educating their children. There is equal emphasis on the education of girls and parents encourage their daughter to go to schools, colleges and universities.
In the Hunza region there are 53 primary schools, 37 middle schools, 35 high schools, seven higher secondary schools and four degree colleges. Given the limited chances of higher education, the boys and girls of Hunza go to main cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad for higher education.The educational structure of Hunza-Nagar and Gilgit is a blend of public schools, non-formal schools, Social Action Programme (SAP) schools, Aga Khan Education Services-Pakistan (AKES-P) schools, AKES-P supported schools, private schools and madressahs. There are 344 primary schools of which 96 are public-sector schools. There are an estimated 141 middle schools of which 53 are public-sector schools, and 113 high schools of which 47 are in the public sector.
The total number of higher secondary schools is six of which one is public. There are 598 schools in total in Gilgit and Hunza-Nagar of which 196 are public schools. The current enrolment of boys is 36,086 while for girls it is 36,017. The Aga Khan network has done exemplary work in terms of providing quality education and setting up an educational structure that is a successful model for other regions of Pakistan.
Unfortunately, this educational scenario has been badly disturbed by the disaster that started in January with the landslide in Attaabad, a village of upper Hunza, and that is worsening with every passing day. As the lake expanded, it engulfed a number of buildings including houses and schools. Four upstream villages — Attaabad, Shishkat, Aeenaba and Gulmit — are badly affected by the artificially created Hunza lake. A number of schools have been either destroyed or identified as potentially dangerous buildings.
Many school buildings have been evacuated. The latest update from Hunza and Gilgit is that all the public schools and colleges have been closed for an indefinite period, although another purpose of closing them might be to use the school buildings to house internally displaced persons.
The closure of schools started on May 15 and may continue for an indefinite period. It is important to keep in mind that these schools had already remained closed for one to two months for the winter vacations. Currently the 72,103 students that are enrolled in schools and colleges of different systems are out of school. Such a long closure will without doubt have a negative impact on their educational performance.
The disaster has also thrown up another problem that has a direct bearing on education. The majority of the parents in the region, whose main source of earning is farming and who rely mainly on the cash crop of potatoes, were unable to cultivate their lands and were deprived of their livelihoods. Other parents who were involved in small-scale business are now idle because the submersion of parts of the Karakoram Highway has meant that trade with China is no longer possible.
This situation is aggravated further since the shortage of goods has pushed prices up. Most people have lost their lands, fruit orchards and means of living, and are finding it difficult to pay the fees and school-related expenditures of their children.A large number of boys and girls from Hunza are acquiring higher education in the large cities of Pakistan. Their parents suddenly find themselves in a difficult position in terms of continuing to bear the children`s educational expenses. Students studying far from their homes are upset they cannot go back to their homes since the only method of travel — by boat — has also been suspended. In some cases they have been advised by their parents to stay away from the danger zone.
The ordeal that started with the landslide has entered its fifth month now. Twenty-five thousand people of Gojal (upper Hunza) have been stranded, cut off from the rest of the country since there is no land connection and the boat service has been suspended. The educational price of the Hunza disaster can have serious consequences for the local inhabitants whose top priority is the provision of the best possible education for their children.A number of analysts believe that the large-scale disaster could have been averted had there been faster rescues. The authorities either did not realise the enormity of the challenge and its potential repercussions or deliberately downplayed the magnitude of the calamity. The result, however, is an uncertain situation that can lead to huge losses.
The writer is the director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and the author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.