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DAWN - Features; 09 March, 2005

March 09, 2005


How safe is the school trip?

By Aileen Qaiser

The death of seven students in a bus accident on the motorway during a school trip to Khewra Salt Mines is every parent's worst nightmare. This is the second major school trip accident in the country in less than three months. The first occurred in an amusement park in Lahore last December when a ride collapsed killing three students and two teachers.

These accidents have increased the fears of parents in sending their children on school trips. Apart from a bus accident or an accident within the premises of the place being visited, the other major fear of parents is their child getting lost during the excursion, thus rendering him or her vulnerable to abduction and assault by strangers.

Nevertheless, the school trip is nowadays widely recognized as an integral part of classroom instruction. The annual school excursion has become very much a part of modern education in both private and public schools, as its benefits are believed to be social as well as educational. Besides, it is great fun, eagerly awaited by both students and teachers alike each year.

Both the recent bus accident on the motorway and the earlier amusement park accident were promptly followed by promises by the relevant government authorities to make amends by increasing inspection of vehicles/roads and amusement parks respectively, if necessary with new regulations and laws.

Whether the government will actually fulfil these promises by making vehicles, highways and amusement parks safer through new and stricter enforcement of rules, remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, what about the role of the school administrations? Given the fact that certain dangers are involved during any trip or excursion, it is the basic responsibility of the school administration to ensure that excursions are prepared, managed, supervised and monitored in a way that ensures the health, safety and security of the participating students and staff.

The standard of planning, and of care and supervision of students required of schools on a trip is definitely higher than that required in the classroom. A school cannot shun its liability by simply obtaining parental permission in writing for the trip.

When planning a school trip, the first common practical pedagogical advice is to check things out first. The school administration and the teachers-in-charge should know about the excursion facilities and location well, since it is their duty to protect students from reasonably foreseeable accidents.

During a school trip to Murree last year, a 14-year old student slipped while sitting in a chair lift with two other students and was saved from plunging to his death below by the skin of his teeth: his shoelaces got caught in the restraining bar of the chair lift. Neither the teachers-in-charge nor the chair lift operator had cautioned the students or made sure that only two persons should sit in a single chair lift.

In the amusement park accident last December where five students/teachers died and nearly 50 others were injured, apart from the maintenance problem, experts have noted that the ride was clearly overloaded when the structure collapsed. Again, neither the teachers-in-charge nor the amusement park operators apparently took serious note of the dangers of overloading.

A school would have discharged its duty adequately if teachers have inspected the premises to be visited beforehand, identified the possible hazards and checked that students are dressed and equipped according to the environment.

It should also ensure that an adequate supervision ratio is maintained at all times based on careful assessment of factors such as age/gender of students and nature of activity.

Implementing head counts, roll calls, arranging rendezvous points, etc., are control measures that must be installed to prevent students from getting lost, and abducted and assaulted by strangers during the excursion.

Most important of all, particularly since highway accidents are common, is the selection of the bus company for the trip. For schools that do not have their own buses to transport students on trips, a reliable bus company offering experienced and licensed drivers as well good conditioned buses should be selected.

The teachers-in-charge ought to ensure that the vehicle is registered and well-maintained, and that the driver is licensed and experienced enough to drive on the particular route, even if the bus belonged to the school.

The recent school trip bus accident on the motorway raises several questions. Was the bus driver familiar with or experienced enough to negotiate the steep and winding motorway road near the Salt Range? Was the bus, particularly its brake system, regularly serviced and maintained by qualified mechanics? Overworked brakes are usually known to fail on steep and winding roads, all the more so when the vehicle is overloaded.

Was the bus carrying more passengers than its actual capacity? According to press reports, the total number of passengers - students and teachers - was well over 60. Also, the fact that four of the seven students who died were said to have fallen out of the vehicle and pinned under the bus suggests that they were either not properly seated or the bus did not have secure enough windows and doors.

Not only should schools ensure that enough buses are hired for the trip to accommodate all the students and teachers safely in seats, the teachers-in-charge should know the maximum number of children/adults that the bus can seat and they should also supervise the children to ensure minimal distraction of the driver.

The fears of parents about the school trip will only be allayed if schools are seen to plan and organize trips for students with the care that ensures their utmost safety and security, and parents are satisfied that the schools and their teachers are taking every possible precaution to guard their students' safety.

A portrait of social life

By Hasan Abidi

The short story writer, Shamshad Ahmad, presented his first novel at the Irtiqa Literary Forum last Sunday, seeking the opinion of critics and fellow writers. Jamal Naqvi, poet and prose writer, was the first to read an introductory piece on the novel, 'Kathputlian' (puppets). "I will prefer to call it a long short story," Shamshad Ahmed pointed out.

"It would be a shame to call it a novelette. Look, what the Oxford Advanced Dictionary says. Novelette is a short novel, especially romantic novel that is considered to be badly written, and I think my novel is not badly written."

Spread over 130 pages, Kathputlian describes the life around a bus stand in a small town, with a Haji sahib, owner of a wagon, its driver Maajha (Merajdeen); Chhota, the cleaner; Shero, owner of a tea shop, who is the villain of the piece; and one Enayati, a prostitute, who never conceals her profession.

The bus driver was a bold and honest person and Haji Sahib began to admire him. A turning point came in the former's life when, with the blessings of the latter, he decided to abandon the life of a carefree bachelor and settle down after being married. But his wagon met with an accident, and he and Chhota the cleaner were both killed.

It was "an unnatural death", a writer said, who believed in socialist realism. But, the writer said the men were just puppets in the hands of fate. Rauf Niazi, a critic and ardent believer in modern critical theories, spoke with zest on the technique and literary quality of the text.

Abbas Rizvi, Ahmad Saghir Siddiqui and many others examined the language of the novel and the "innovations" the writer introduces. This was supported by Salman Siddiqui, who also read a paper on the novel.

Shamshad also presented a short story, "to familiarize" the listeners with his style. Author of five collections of short stories (300 in all) he is planning to bring out another story collection and a novel. Poet Sadiq Madhosh presided over the meeting.

* * * * *

Hamza Wahid, devoted to the welfare of the poor and children's education, was remembered on her fifth death anniversary on March 3. Prof Dr Aqeela Islam delivered the key-note address while Prof Ismail Saad, Dean of Education at Iqra University, presided over the occasion. Prof Anis Zaidi and Prof Mohammad Naseer of the Irtiqa Institute of Sciences were among the speakers.

The late Hamza was an untiring political activist, an ardent believer in the socialist ideology, and remained committed to her various causes in the social sector. She opened schools and promoted primary education in poor localities, worked in the trade unions and professional organizations and encouraged writers to contribute to creating awareness about the marginalized sections of society.

Dr Aqeela Islam paid high tributes to Hamza, who she said had changed the course of her life by persuading her to study physics at the university. It helped her to see life in its true perspective.

Prof Islam graphically described the state of education in the country, and quoted from official papers and reports of various education commissions to prove that governments in the past had never been sincere while making their promises.

She was also highly critical of the so-called 'English-medium' schools where ordinary matriculate teachers on meagre salaries were employed to teach. Sadly, the parents were made to believe that their children were getting "high quality" education, with the ability to express themselves in English with ease, not knowing that their hard earned money was going down the drain.

Dr Islam also condemned the practice of tuition centres. She advised parents to help improve the condition of government schools in their areas and quoted instances to prove that these schools in the past had imparted good education and produced highly promising youth.

Dr Sher Shah Syed spoke of the decline of the social sector, the decay in the education system and the depressing conditions prevailing in the area of health. Everything was a shambles, already dead and buried, he said. But Dr Ismail Saad felt otherwise. He was optimistic that things were improving, but change would take some time to be felt.

He opposed Syed's contention that education was solely the responsibility of the government and asserted that it was society's own responsibility to ensure that education reached everyone.

* * * * *

The Sadequain Institute of Art paid tribute last week to its prolific yet absent patron in whose name the institute was founded - Syed Sadequain Ahmad Naqvi (1930-1987). Sadequain, the painter and poet has left behind a monumental body of work that required thorough study, Pirzada Qasim, Karachi University VC, observed as he chaired the proceedings. Others who spoke included reputed artist A.R. Nagori, Dr Mohammad Ali Siddiqui, Dr Hilal Naqvi and Ali Haider Malik.

Dr Qasim said Sadequain was unique in the way that his creative genius ruled over two major branches of the arts - painting and poetry. Zafar Mohyuddin, secretary of the Bazm-i-Kahkashan, who hosted the function, briefly introduced Sadequain and recalled that he had composed 1,500 quatrains within a few days, calli-graphed them and left other poets amazed. His quatrains were found to be comparable to those of other noted poets acknowledged in the genre of 'rubaiyat' like Firaq, Josh and Amjad Hyderabadi.

Dr Mohammad Ali Siddiqui was all praise for Sadequain's creative output, "far above the work of many masters of world repute", and A.R. Nagori said that in his figurative work Sadequain was as good as any world famous artist. But, Nagori was also a little critical of Sadequain's zeal for calligraphy, which had gained sudden popularity in Gen Ziaul Haq's days. Every artist big or small was seen jumping on the bandwagon to "please the master".

Sadequain's choice of the cactus as a symbol was appreciated by Dr Pirzada, who said there could be no better metaphor to illustrate the pain and agony of the poor and oppressed people in a traumatized society. The cactus also symbolized the poet's own anguished soul - a sensitive person in an insensitive environment.

Dr Hilal Naqvi recounted how Sadequain during a visit to his hometown, Amroha (UP), after many decades, composed a marsia (elegy) of 80 stanzas. It was the month of Muharram and the poet was so absorbed by the sombre atmosphere all around that he had forgotten all about the marsia and left it behind in Amroha. It was discovered much later by Dr Naqvi when he himself went there.

Of private schools and public problem

By Maheen A. Rashdi

A parent of a student from a reputed private school recounted a very disquieting incident: his 11-year-old daughter - along with a few other school fellows - was made to stand in the school courtyard under the sun, from 12 noon to four in the afternoon.

The reason: their parents were two days late in paying the fee. When the child was picked up after school, her face was flushed with shame and the scorching sun rays, and her fragile pride scarred.

The parent sought advice as to where to take his complaint. The Human Rights Commission? The Sindh minstry of education? Or to file a petition in the high court? Regrettably, though there was a lot of sympathy on offer, there were very few concrete practical options available that would truly get the dejected father some justice, or at least ensure that such blatant abuse of child rights did not recur.

The number of parents unable to keep up with the monthly fee payments of private schools has risen sharply. Whereas some private schools give notice to parents for late fee submissions and then simply strike off the students from the rolls, incidents like the one mentioned above are quite widespread.

In fact, in lower income neighbourhoods, such cases are so common that children are growing up feeling like criminals because of the inevitable treatment of the school authorities and the continued inability of parents to pay fees on time. Parents can hardly kick up much of a dust as the school always has the option of expelling the student.

In the higher income category as well, if statistics are documented as to how many parents of children studying in Karachi's top schools - City School, Foundation Public School, Karachi Grammar, BayView High, etc. - regularly give 'late payment' charges due to insufficient monthly income, the results would be astounding.

A majority finds it difficult to keep up with the three-monthly, high fee payment structure of private schools. Inflation has fragmented the social divide into too many portions and now, more and more are struggling to provide quality education to their children.

With fees of the good schools ranging from Rs3,000 to Rs7,000 a month, a family income of Rs30,000 also can hardly provide for two or more children. And this is only the junior level that we refer to.

The Sindh minister for education and literacy has, on occasions, said that the government would be strengthening public-private partnerships in the education sector. And though many 'new moves' have been put into 'motion', none at all are aimed at making quality education affordable and available to all. In fact, with 'privatization' becoming the new 'action word' for our government, what is clear is that the government has accepted its failure in giving quality education at the primary as well as higher level and is now passing the buck to the private sector.

If only the privatized and denationalized colleges will be providing good education, the lower income group students stand little chance of reaching anywhere near the top.

On the surface, yes, these moves are definitely going to ensure more quality performance in their respective areas but this in no way addresses the rising dilemma of high fees for good education. And this goes for all strata from and below the upper middle class level.

The Sindh ministry for education has loads of issues on their plate and is struggling to implement a number of strategies. Their issues include privatizing of a medical examination board, the changing the curriculum year as well as denationalization.

The struggle to get these 'visionary ideas' accepted by the opposition is proving bothersome. The haphazard modus operendi - typical of all government reforms - is one cause for discontent.

The government's motives might be to 'upgrade' education standards but the moves do not appear to be addressing the now hackneyed rhetoric of 'taaleem aam honi chahiye.' With private schools reigning supreme with their fee structures and churning out only elite apprentices, there is little evidence for good 'taleem' being for 'aam' public.

At best Ms Hamida Khuro can 'urge' the All Private School Management Association to reduce their fees. There is no regulatory body to ensure that the fee remains within affordable limits.

With higher education boards also entering the private domain, quality education is bound to become more polarized. And these moves are in no way addressing the literacy rate of our country as public education at the primary level as well as the secondary level will remain substandard. Is there also a plan in line to bring the level of education of the existing government schools and colleges at par with that of private schools?

The percentage of income tax in Pakistan is almost the same as that of developed countries. But whereas in the developed countries good education is free and the state's responsibility, in Pakistan the honest taxpayer ends up paying the tax as well as high, school fees.

Prudence demands that concrete steps be taken to make 'quality' education - at the primary as well as higher level - affordable for all income groups, specially if we want to control the growing disparity among the classes. And for that, our government has to take the onus of upgrading public education, to a degree where parents of well-to-do families will opt for public schools.

Cross-border bus, UAE style

By Geof Malone

There's a lot of excitement here about the new cross-border bus service. People have been waiting for years for it, and now it seems it is about to become a reality.

It has been talked about for so long that we were beginning to think it would never happen, but in only a few days' time the first bus will be flagged off and it appears that passengers will not be required to carry travel permits. Most of the hurdles have been surmounted and now there are only the mines to be cleared out of the way...

Er, hang on here. I'm getting a bit confused. Delete that bit about the mines. There aren't any that we know of on the highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Let's rewind and start again: it has been announced that the first bus service between the UAE's two main cities will begin on March 15.

Now I'm not suggesting that it has the political significance of the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar service but it certainly says a lot about the internal relationships between the emirates that make up the UAE.

Here we are in a country that is 34 years old and, believe it or not, it has no internal bus service. To put it in perspective, you can get buses every day from Dubai to Dammam, Saudi Arabia, (1,000kms) and yet you can't catch a bus to the neighbouring emirate of Sharjah (about 20kms between the two city centres).

The UAE prides itself on excellent communications. More than 130 airlines fly to Dubai international airport and you can take a plane to just about anywhere on earth. But a bus down the road? Forget it.

The problem has been that while the seven emirates may be united in name, each one retains a varying degree of independence. Dubai goes its own way on lots of issues (and it is easily argued that, unencumbered by the federal bureaucracy, this is why it has forged ahead so rapidly) while some of the small - and poor - emirates are supported financially by the federation and are therefore more inclined to embrace it.

Naturally each emirate wants to do what it can to support its own citizens and local legislation is framed accordingly. To give just one example, if you want to do business with an oil company in Abu Dhabi, you are unlikely to succeed unless your company is registered in Abu Dhabi itself - companies registered in another emirate will face hurdles.

The country's transportation system has faced similar trade barriers and has not been allowed to develop with customer demand being a priority. All inter-emirate public transport travel is by shared taxis or mini-buses and buses have not been allowed.

The main reasons for this is that all taxis are owned by UAE nationals (the 'locals', as they are euphemistically termed). The rulers grant them licences to run taxis and, until not so long ago, taxi driving was a perfectly acceptable occupation for locals: it guaranteed them an income, especially in the smaller emirates where there weren't many employment opportunities.

The taxis are still owned by the locals, but nowadays it is rare to find one behind the steering wheel. More likely they have rented them out either to a man from the Frontier or to someone from Kerala (strange how the majority of UAE taxi drivers come from opposite ends of the subcontinent!).

So taxis are still a major source of income for a lot of the UAE nationals and they naturally want to protect that situation. One of the trade barriers is a law which says that taxis can only pick up passengers in the emirate in which they are registered. Thus a Dubai taxi can take passengers to Sharjah, but then has to return empty. This has been the situation since taxis were first introduced in the region.

Delving into a history book I found mention of one of the first taxi drivers in the 1950s having his eyes gouged out because he strayed on someone else's territory. The punishment is not so severe now, but fines and impounding of cabs does occur.

And of course the rulers of the individual emirates would not want to upset a large number of their citizens by changing the status quo. It would be like negotiating a minefield (the coincidences abound...).

Another (slightly cynical) reason that the transport system has not developed as it should in a modern country is that virtually no locals use it, so mass transportation has never been a priority.

Things are changing, however, and the pressure is, inevitably, coming from Dubai, which has built up an excellent internal bus service run by the municipality. It is reliable, clean, air-conditioned and cheap.

Initially used by low-paid workers, it has gained widespread acceptance (not least from my 84-year-old mother who, when she comes to stay, uses it for travelling all over city and says it's a great way to meet people).

Now Dubai wants to build on this success with inter-emirates travel and after what must have been tortuous negotiations (I doubt if the Indo-Pak ones could have been much more difficult) has come to an agreement with Abu Dhabi to start a scheduled bus service. Every 45 minutes, two hours for the 170km journey and just _ Dh15 - about half of the current taxi fare.

Dubai officials now say they are well down the line in discussions with other emirates. Apart from convenience for passengers, the bus services will hopefully cut down on the increasing road congestion, although this is getting so bad that I doubt whether we will notice much difference.

There has been no word yet on what has been done to keep the taxi owners happy but, in the quiet way that things are frequently resolved here, there has undoubtedly been some accommodation. It all goes to show that you don't have to fight a few wars to delay the bus.