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DAWN - Features; March 10, 2002

March 10, 2002

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A cruel deal for matric students

By Nusrat Nasarullah


WHEN the crippling inefficiency of our various systems hits the young, it makes one wonder what they think of the decision- makers, and of the society they live in, or the world they are going to inherit. The idealism of the young and their hopes, all are tarnished when pitted against the rank inefficiency and cynicism of those who man the system.

What does one expect of the young students who were to appear in their matriculation examination-2002 and were told that their admit cards were not ready, and the exams had been postponed? They would protest. Even if there was one student who didn’t get his admit card because of the inefficiency of the Board of Secondary Education, it would be a disaster. There are thousands, and the attitude is one that betrays the callousness that is seemingly integral to our educational system.

One finds it absolutely appalling to read what the official news agency APP reports: “a number of enraged candidates aspiring to appear in the SSC examinations of the Karachi Board of Secondary Education, commencing on March 1 pelted the Board office with stones on Thursday (February 28) smashing the window-panes at the first floor, an official of the Board said.” Sad!.

It is further stated that the “personnel of the law-enforcing agencies dispersed the candidates who were protesting against the non-issuance of admit cards (give a thought to the fact that Pakistani society seeks to raise its literacy level, which is amongst the lowest in the world, and our performance on this count is deplorable in terms of growth rate).

Perhaps anger is not the right response here. One should only mourn that we have reached a stage that we have to “baton-charge” those who only want their exam admit cards, which were not issued for reasons that the students have nothing to do with. Who’s messing it all up.

Fortunately, for us we sat for our matric exams 40 years ago. It wasn’t like this though there was always a central role that the admit cards played even then. One wasn’t sure whether the admit cards would finally arrive. With time one would have imagined that technology would have improved matters. That the Board of Secondary Education would be better equipped, staffed and psychologically conscious of the lasting damage that is done to students when they are made to suffer this agonising uncertainty.

There has appeared a very strongly worded letter to the editor in an English daily which asks in anger “Why baton-charge matric students?” And the Karachiite who has written this letter says that “Transparency demands that the Chairman of the Board of Secondary Education, Karachi, owes an explanation to the parents of students and the nation about the circumstances leading to lathi-charge on students on Feb 28, 2002.” This citizen wants him to quit.

It seems that the board’s chairman has tried to shift the blame on the heads of schools who were directed to collect the admit cards, and that this directive was given only five days before the exams were to begin. (The five days includes a Sunday as well, please note).

The chairman, M. Aziz Ansari, held a press conference last week after the confusion surfaced and explained in his defence that “the number of candidates was increasing annually and there was a shortage of the staff at the Board of Secondary Education, Karachi, and that there was a ban on overtime.”

Even if this is true, why should students be made to suffer. Not just uncertainty, with regard to their examinations (whose inherent significance affects their subsequent academic and professional careers as we all know), but also a postponement of the examination dates. This is indeed “scandalous” and there are reasons to look into the matter seriously.

This failure to deliver admit cards has delayed the examinations and the date has been further advanced to March 29. This is a 23-day delay and a revised date-sheet is to be issued now.

There are many questions that come to our mind. Have we now reached a stage where we are unable to hold examinations for the boys and girls whose number is growing at the matric level. If it is so, what is all this emphasis and rhetoric about raising the literacy level? Then what is all this talk about good governance if we cannot even issue admit cards for SSC exams on time. In fact, one is inclined to go along with the perspective that emerges that there is a steady decline in standards all-round, especially when it comes to the working of public dealing departments and organizations.

Look at the well-known delay that has been created in the issuance of the computerised national identity cards. Look at what has happened in the case of the New National Tax Numbers whose plastic cards expired almost four years ago and have been replaced with poorer versions now. Look at the delay that is attributed and associated with the processes that are required to be undergone if you need a driving licence, or a passport, or if any other document or sanction is required from a government office.

Strangely enough the private sector banks which issue credit cards are the quickest, and it is a hassle-free operation for all applicants. How does that happen!

But let me return to the SSC students admit cards. This delay and this postponement reflects very easily that all is not well in the Board of Secondary Education, Karachi, and the Education Department needs to come out with a comprehensive version and justification of what has happened. It is not enough for the Executive District Officer to say that there is no extra fee to be paid for any admit cards. (Is this happening in a society where corruption is so rampant?)

It is easily understandable that now students have fears that this delay so far, and the way in which the Board is working, could cause enormous delays in the preparation and release of matric results which could affect adversely the admission process for colleges later this year. What is not understandable is why all this was not anticipated by the Board of Secondary Education Karachi! Why this cruelty?

Judge not lest ye be judged

AN ELDERLY lady passing by a village graveyard in Narowal district last week heard what appeared to be the sound of an infant crying itself hoarse. Being enlightened, courageous and kind, she put off her immediate business and went instead to investigate the matter. She found an abandoned baby, only a few days old, and adopted it. A miracle, of course. Praise the Lord.

But abandoned babies are nobody’s idea of a welcome occasion for charity and some of the neighbours were outraged at the very thought of it. The word spread readily and, despite the distance, reached Narowal city where the child’s parents live. Confronted with the evidence, the father reportedly admitted that he had tried to stifle the newborn, leaving it finally for dead. His reason: he did not like daughters. The mother had been told the child had been adopted by an issueless ‘friend.’

His neighbours were indignant and have been reported as ‘concerned’ at the police’s failure to arrest and prosecute the man. While the family have three living children besides the infant — a boy and two girls — four are reported to have died through apparent neglect. The fact was mentioned pointedly in news reports implying, probably a little unkindly, that the impunity had emboldened the errant father.

Newspaper reports are silent about the family’s resources. The indignance, one can only infer, is based probably on the presumption of adequate means. Given the poverty statistics, this is a dangerous presumption. Indeed the day the story was reported, Dawn also carried the story of a landless peasant who had committed suicide after killing his wife and two children. Nor was this an isolated incident. Poverty is driving many to undeserved suffering and death. Sixty five suicides have been reported in the Punjab during the last two months. While there can be no question of condoning irrational and irresponsible behaviour, there is probably more room for sympathy and kindness and less need for self-righteous judgment.

* * * * * * * * *

JOURNALIST Shaheen Sehbai, resigned as editor of The News on March 1 after serving the paper for about 14 moths.

In a letter addressed to colleagues, Mr Sehbai, who earlier had a very distinguished career with Dawn, implied that the publisher had charged him with policy violations and professional misconduct to sack him under pressure from the military government. He enclosed a memorandum from the publisher alleging publication of libellous matter, alienating advertisers, failing to consult him on important matters, printing a story recently that was ‘perceived to be damaging to our national interest’ and elicited a severe reaction from the government, failing to contact ‘relevant government functionaries’ to discuss the issue, and being generally inaccessible to senior government officials as well his own staff.

The memo also complained of a lack of improvement in the paper.

Mr Sehbai said he had answered by recalling that the publisher had informed him of the government demand to sack four The News staffers, including the editor, and regretted that “you have decided to get in line.” He said he was aware that the government had stopped carrying advertisements in not only The News but also other papers of the group and that the publisher had been told that only the dismissals would result in their restoration.

He claimed that he had been asked to contact the Inter-Services Intelligence officials but had refused on principal to call, or meet, any government official in a ‘hostage’ situation.

On the other hand, he said, he had conveyed to the government the evidence that the paper’s policy had, in fact, been tilted in its favour. At least 50 editorials and over 100 articles published in about six weeks were cited to prove the point. The paper, he said, had at times gone out of its way to accommodate the government.

But, Mr Sehbai said, he could not allow a newspaper he edited to become the voice of any government for monetary considerations.

Dismissing “whatever other issues you have raised” as “childish and frivolous,” he said there was no point in discussing them.

Recounting management problems, Mr Sehbai also mentioned the “legal jugglery” employed to deprive contract workers of salary increases and the refusal to renew their contracts.

The episode was described in foreign media as a blow to claims of freedom of press in Pakistan. A spokesman for the government was said to have denied Mr Sehbai’s allegations.

At The News, no replacement has since been named.

* * * * * * * * *

PARTICIPANTS of a Thomson Foundation workshop on investigative journalism were shown a documentary on the concluding day on arrest and detention of British journalists in Argentina covering the Falkland war. The message probably was that in certain situations curiosity can be perceived as a threat and the newsmen have to be prepared for such extreme actions.

An interior ministry spokesman confirmed, meanwhile, that an inter-provincial meeting on February 16 had decided that stern action should be taken against newspapers, printers and publishers involved in the publication of ‘provocative and baseless’ reports about the president. Besides other measures such newspapers would be banned and their offices sealed. The interior minister had reportedly cited some stories at the meeting which he said had created difficulties for the government.

The five-day workshop, which concluded at Lahore on Friday, is also planned for Karachi and Islamabad.

* * * * * * * * *

ELSEWHERE, Arundhati Roy, noted Indian journalist and award winning novelist, was convicted of criminal contempt of court. She was sentenced to a token one-day prison term and a Rs2,000 fine.

The two-judge Supreme Court bench found the author, who had been part of a crowd that shouted slogans against it outside the court building, of “scandalizing it and lowering its dignity through her statements.” Acquitted in the original case, she was charged by the judges for filing an affidavit saying compelling her to appear before the court created “a disturbing impression that there is an inclination on the part of the court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent.” —- ONLOOKER