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Life’s great lottery

Updated August 31, 2013


IF you are reading this column, you can consider yourself very lucky, for you have won life’s biggest lottery.

Let me hasten to add that your good fortune does not lie in reading this particular article, but because you are able to buy this newspaper, and read it in English. Both facts place you in a very small, privileged minority in Pakistan.

Out of a population of nearly 200 million, only six million or so buy daily newspapers; out of this, English dailies account for just over 10pc. So you are clearly in a very tiny minority. Your reading habits also reveal more about you: chances are that you were privately educated, and this places you in Pakistan’s small upper middle-class. And you probably own a car and a house.

Your relative affluence suggests your children, too, attend private schools and colleges. If they have graduated, their education makes them eligible to get good jobs, and marry well. In short, privilege and affluence are passed on from one generation to the next smoothly and seamlessly.

While these are generalisations, being able to buy and read English newspapers does place you in an exclusive niche.

Some would say that to really hit the jackpot, you should have a green card, a penthouse in Manhattan and a yacht. But let’s not get greedy here: the fact that you are among the top 0.1pc in Pakistan is something to be grateful for. However, where you are today is largely due to an accident of birth: most of us were born to parents who could afford to send us to good schools.

Imagine, for a moment, that you had been born in, say, the rural areas of Sindh, and your father was a tenant farmer. If, as a male child, you could leave work on the tiny family land holding and go to school, you would find that 55pc of schools in rural Sindh are without water connections and toilet facilities.

This is despite the fact that the province produces 72pc of Pakistan’s oil and gas. Oil companies are supposed to spend 1pc of their revenues on improving local infrastructure, but routinely fail to do so.

Most people in rural Sindh receive an average of 1,700 calories in their daily diet, well below the body’s requirement. So while the hinterland has 50pc of the province’s population, it only accounts for 30pc of its GDP.

This translates into an average monthly family income of around Rs15,000 or under $150. Try and even imagine raising a family on that.

There was a time when the quality of education in state schools, while uneven, was not as poor as it is today. Many of our successful public figures were educated there. My first year of schooling was in a very basic classroom where we learned the Urdu alphabet on wooden takhtis or slates, and with reed pens which we dipped in ink.

But as with so much else in the public sector, institutions have got worse instead of improving. Now, if a child is condemned to state school education, he has very little chance of clawing his way out of the poverty trap.

A handful of NGOs like The Citizens Foundation are running excellent free schools for the needy, but given our rapidly growing population, this is a drop in the ocean. Unless the state plays its role in a meaningful way, generations of children are doomed to poverty.

Given the malnourishment that afflicts around a third of Pakistani children under five, it should not surprise us that over half in this age bracket are stunted.

This perpetual hunger not only affects their physique, but their mental development as well. Even in recession-hit Britain, thousands of kids arrive in school without having eaten breakfast. Their teachers report a lack of concentration, and an inability to remember their lessons. One can only imagine what it must be like to sit in a hot classroom in rural Pakistan, suffering from hunger pangs.

In other developing countries, the state tries to even out some of these inequalities. In Sri Lanka and in many Indian states, a daily meal is provided to students free of charge.

But in Pakistan, despite the promises of universal education made by successive governments, millions of kids are deprived of this basic right. Small wonder that parents elect to send their boys to madressahs that usually feed them.

Indoctrination in extremism is all too often part of the curriculum. And of course, children graduating from these seminaries are ill-qualified to get jobs, so who can blame them for joining jihadi groups?

If things are bad for boys, think how much worse they are for girls. Many parents do not send them to local schools just because they lack working toilets. In many parts of Pakistan, girls simply aren’t allowed out of their homes. And in several places where they do try and get an education, extremists bomb their schools.

For all the lofty talk in TV studios and newspaper editorials about national honour and sovereignty, we have failed millions of our fellow citizens by our lack of concern for their plight. Most of us are quite happy with the status quo, and because we have won life’s lottery, we have fallen into complacency.

However, by consigning millions to poverty, illiteracy and disease, we have also condemned Pakistan to permanent backwardness.

Those reading this newspaper are complicit with the state in its callous negligence. While we all have our excuses, the fact is that we simply don’t put any pressure on the government of the day to focus on the poor.

Shamelessly, begging bowl in hand, we plead for aid, but after billions of dollars collected over the years, our children still lack the most basic educational facilities. Sadly, they are forever losers in life’s great lottery.