GOOD development experts have failed to get across a basic truth to Pakistan’s politicians and economic planners: if you are on a dirt road, fill the ruts — don’t dream of bullet trains and flyovers.

One has to get the basics right before anything else can work. This obvious fact failed to register with the government and the Election Commission of Pakistan as it set in motion the recent ballot-box democracy exercise, allowing some alleged lawbreakers a free hand in returning to parliament.

They overlooked the fact which every cook knows: clean the pans before preparing fresh meals. For those undaunted by this recent failure and blessed with an optimistic spirit, a potpourri of home truths is laid out.

A poor country like Pakistan cannot have sustainable development without reducing its population significantly through enlightened family planning. (It is best not to use the euphemism ‘developing country’, which we were in the 1960s when an attempt was made at population control.) How can we get back on track? A global perspective will help.

About three million children in poor countries die every year of diseases that can be prevented by basic healthcare and vaccination. The cost of providing a package of basic vaccines to a child is about Rs3000 — the price of a good meal in a luxury hotel.

Pakistan has about 3pc of the world’s population of seven billion. Therefore roughly 250 kids die here every day. What’s the cost of avoiding these deaths? Just the price of one lavish wedding reception daily! And as for the basic healthcare for all, nothing is more important than providing potable water through community outlets, which are easily affordable.

Enlightened education, particularly of females, that encourages critical thinking is another key area needing urgent attention. Attempts at improving higher education levels over a decade have been overlooking the more critical lower levels where irreversible damage is presently done to impressionable minds.

Education when viewed holistically should integrate all levels of education, including informal education, which brings the adult population up to par and encourages lifelong learning. But who is going to do this?

The standard of pedagogy at all levels is poor. This failing can be corrected by a nationwide programme of teachers’ training, principally in English communication skills.

The world’s knowledge will continue its exponential growth in this language and we need to build on our advantage in English from the colonial era. Shortage of master trainers will require importing talent and where better to find it economically than India.

Even more important is the provision of fast internet access nationally in neighbourhood community cybercafés — that double as cultural centres.

Large-scale provision of inexpensive multi-media projectors in institutions would allow students to view off-line programmes of the best teachers globally with the local teacher acting as a facilitator.

Our teachers and professors should use them as role models, while weaving the knowledge from the net into the Pakistani context for their students. Above all we need a rethinking of the curriculum across the board, cognisant of the amazing range and quality of knowledge now on the net.

Pakistan’s radio and TV are largely news and entertainment outlets that need redirection towards worthier goals of enlightening, lifelong learning. The models of the BBC in the UK and PBS and National Public Radio in the US — live and on the net — can show us how this can be achieved.

Such tools of the new media will help achieve full literacy in the country faster than the mere five years that it took some South American countries to do so using the ideas of Paulo Freire.

I conclude with brief reference to three commonly voiced concerns: energy, human and environmental security.

Instead of lurching forward into dangerous technologies such as nuclear and coal, we need to focus on our natural abundance of sunshine and hydropower (about which much has been written).

While wind technology needs exploration, the area calling for immediate implementation is solar thermal, i.e. direct capture of heat energy from the sun’s rays to turn turbines for power generation — an option cheaper than wind energy.

It has the advantage of our engineers accomplishing this largely themselves. At the other end, appropriate technologies such as green roofs (or simply oil painting or installing reflective high insulation tiling) could cool our homes and reduce cost, as can improving the efficiency of industry, vehicles and other energy guzzlers. Some complex problems have cheap, simple solutions.

Human security issues require that we establish not just peace but cordial relations with India, Afghanistan and Iran and open our borders to free exchange of people and commerce.

Let’s be honest and admit that Kashmir cannot be snatched from India — ask the experienced retired general under house-arrest in his farmhouse in Islamabad. Money for wasteful military gadgets can then be diverted towards human development.

Human security would be best advanced by providing decent livelihood to the poor and disadvantaged — gimmicks such as the expensive income support programme will fail.

What are needed are low-cost projects which provide employment and an honourable income for the multitudes of unskilled and uneducated, coupled with literacy and skills training.

One such project ought to be for countrywide reforestation — green cover is well below 5pc of the land-area; it ought to be at least five times higher. Its environmental and social benefits would be enormous.

Publicity-attracting expensive mega projects have been dear to our leaders. The real skill of wise leaders, though, lies in generating a sense of self-worth among the citizens. Ensuring self sufficiency through transforming the country from the bottom up is the way. The new government must take up this challenge.

The writer is a physicist and environmentalist.

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