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DAWN - Editorial; January 23, 2006

January 23, 2006


At the cost of standards

SOURCES in the Higher Education Commission have indicated that private sector university campuses operating in Islamabad are unlikely to meet the criteria laid down for them by the deadline of February 2007. These institutions of higher education that had obtained their charter from various provincial governments were allowed to set up campuses in the capital territory in 2002 but were given five years to fulfil the conditions specified. This is only in the case of the campuses in Islamabad. But it is well known that a large number of universities — both in the public and private sectors — do not come up to the required standards. In a bid to bring about rapid expansion in higher education, the HEC has been too hasty in encouraging the inauguration of new universities without paying due attention to our capacity to maintain high academic standards. In three years the HEC’s budget soared by 1,500 per cent and this year its development budget will be Rs 9 billion. The number of universities and degree-awarding institutions has shot up to 110, the public sector universities being 47 as compared to 26 in the year 2000.

There are two major factors that account for the HEC’s failure to make an impact so far. First, in its attempt to show quick results, the HEC has tried to push too hard and too fast. Considering the fact that university education in Pakistan has been in decline for decades, it is unlikely that the scenario can be changed within a few months. Of course a beginning had to be made somewhere. But it was unrealistic and ambitious to attempt to revolutionize the whole sector within a matter of a few years and rectify the weaknesses that had become deeply embedded in the system over a period of several decades. Yet that is what the HEC is trying to do. It wants to double the enrolment from 590,000 to 1180,000 in five years, when previously enrolment had increased at an annual rate of eight per cent. This will, of course, make higher education more accessible but it also means stretching its teaching, research and laboratory resources too thin. To fill the vacuum, it hopes to produce 1,000 PhDs every year. Small wonder then that one supervisor is loaded with as many as 30 students to guide. This rapid expansion will preempt any improvement in the standards of education.

The second factor that has impacted negatively on the HEC’s programmes is the failure of the government to address the issue of primary and secondary education. School enrolment is low, the drop-out rate is high and standards abysmally low. The output from schools and colleges go to universities. When they are not sufficiently qualified and trained, how can they be expected to be suddenly transformed when they enter university? Their poor performance in school lowers the standards of education in the universities as well. Education needs to be treated as a composite issue. It should not be compartmentalized into different sectors. The planning for all the sectors should be integrated so that the changes in one area make a positive impact on the other areas as well and the weaknesses of one are not allowed to pull down the others. One hopes that the policymakers in Islamabad will see the wisdom of adopting a holistic approach to education.

Let Lahore run

WITH each side vowing to go ahead with their plans for the upcoming marathon in Lahore — the administration is determined to host it while religious activists are threatening to resort to violence to disrupt it — one can expect a showdown on January 29 when the event is scheduled to take place. One hopes that the administration does not buckle under pressure and backtrack on its pledge, as it has done many times before — when it called off other mixed marathons last year or, at the federal level, when it caved in to MMA pressure and restored the religion column in the passport. Events like the mixed marathon have now come to represent civil liberties and just as men and women have the right to participate in this and other sporting events, so too do the groups opposed to them to say ‘no’ to these — provided they do so in a peaceful, lawful manner. This, unfortunately, was not the case in May last year when hundreds of MMA activists disrupted the mixed marathon in Gujranwala. Despite being arrested, months later the government dropped the charges against the disrupters, which has only strengthened the groups’ resolve. Unless those who break the law are duly punished, they will continue to try to subvert such events as they did last year. As elected representatives expected to uphold the law, the MMA leadership must ensure that its supporters behave in a responsible manner.

The administration is chalking up effective security arrangements for the day of the mixed marathon, which is reassuring as fear of violence may keep many spectators away. However, the government must adopt a more consistent policy for the future. Last year it stood aside during the Gujranwala debacle but flexed its muscles on human rights activists participating in a mixed run in Lahore. Similarly, last Friday it allowed the MMA to hold a protest rally against the marathon but prevented the ARD from doing so against the military action in Balochistan. This discriminatory attitude is unbecoming of a government that claims to be moderate and just but sends the wrong message to the public, whose rights and liberties it is expected to protect.

Alarming deforestation

FOREST authorities in Sindh should take immediate note of the protest staged by residents of Bahawal Shah and Chhatan Shah against Chachar tribesmen who, they say, are occupying their land in Nasiri forest and indulging in the indiscriminate felling of trees. In the past, too, there have been similar complaints by the people of the area but it appears that the local administration and the law enforcement authorities have not been able to stop the cutting down of trees in the forests situated here. Unfortunately, this holds true for other parts of the country as well. With one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, it is no surprise that Pakistan’s forest cover is less than five per cent —well below the recommended figure of 25 per cent. What must also be noted is that there are several types of forests that are being cut down — from the rare junipers of Balochistan to the mangroves lining the Indus delta — leading to the destruction of a large variety of ecosystems.

Poverty, firewood needs, overgrazing, clearing land for development purposes and the vested interests of the timber mafia are some of the reasons behind this destruction of our woodlands, with disastrous consequences for the environment as a whole. While obviously these are issues that can only be addressed over time with careful planning, what is preventing the authorities from enacting existing forest and environment legislation? True, there have been efforts to replant trees — and the results of such campaigns are apparent in some areas of the country — and local communities are more involved than before in the conservation of their habitat. But, at the same time, there is much more population pressure on natural resources than before, and greater exploitation of wooded land by the timber mafia. These aspects must be factored into any strategy that the government evolves for effective forest management.

Indian media’s blinkered perception

By Omar R. Quraishi

ONE key difference between Pakistani and Indian newspapers is that the latter toe the official line on Kashmir and policy towards Pakistan. In fact, it seems that on many occasions the press is much more hawkish than the Indian government itself on this particular issue.

The other is that the print media in India — unlike its counterpart in Pakistan — seems to focus on everything good giving the impression to readers that India has no grinding poverty, no hungry mouths to feed, no homeless, to shelter, and that just about everyone is able to purchase a mobile phone, a motorcycle or a car and speaks fluent English.

Problems like lack of sanitation, caste wars, stove deaths and discrimination against minorities are mostly ignored (not covered to the extent similar issues would be on this side of the border) at the expense of Bollywood-related news features or coverage of corporate events. There also seems to be an obsession that India is the best in everything and many articles are written around this theme. However, sometimes the gloss is broken through as happened via a back-page advertisement in the Times of India announcing the sale of a flat in an upscale part of Mumbai but with the proviso that only vegetarians need to apply.

Compared to this, Pakistani newspapers at least have people vigorously debating and discussing the government’s policy vis-a-vis India, some saying that the government has ceded too much ground while others saying that more flexibility needs to be shown. In much of the Indian media, one hardly finds any commentator, analyst or opinion-maker expressing the latter kind of view.

In Mumbai on a short visit, one could not but help notice the kind of coverage Pakistan gets in the Indian media. In fact, were it not for cricket, one could say that most of the coverage is quite negative. Take, for instance, the interview President Pervez Musharraf gave recently to Karan Thapar for the CNN-IBN news channel. Shown extensively on this newly-launched channel, the interview was mostly ignored and dismissed by much of mainstream Indian media. The tone of even some of the editorials was close to offensive and derisive in tone and content. Take, for example, the Times of India, which ran an editorial on the interview in its Jan. 10 issue with the headline “Grow up, General”.

The paper did not use the word ‘president’ for Mr Musharraf, instead referring to him as ‘general’ throughout. It dismissed his suggestion that both India and Pakistan demilitarize both sides of the Line of Control beginning with three towns on the Indian side and one on the Pakistani side. It wrote: “The general’s proposition is utterly cynical even while confirming the perception that violence in the Valley is the handiwork of Islamabad. Musharraf may well have been compelled by domestic reasons to bring Kashmir back to centrestage. Besides the regrouping of Islamic fundamentalists, Islamabad is also facing the threat of secessionism in Balochistan.”

Instead of seeing anything positive in the very detailed interview, the newspaper wrote that there were “sufficient reasons to assume” that “the general” had done this to “provoke” India, adding that such “showmanship is bad diplomacy”. How such a measure can be interpreted to “provoke” New Delhi is anybody’s guess, and implying that it would do so makes for a weak editorial argument.

The editorial also took its cue from the official Indian on the failed Agra talks saying that they failed because the “general has a penchant for posturing irrespective of whether it helps to further the cause of peace”. Contrast this with the view in Pakistan that they failed because the Indian side, especially the hawks led by the then-deputy prime minister, L.K Advani, did not want to budge from their stated position or accept Kashmir as a disputed territory and include it for discussion in future talks with Pakistan.

It said that the “general should stop shooting from the lip” and leave the negotiating to diplomats. This, however, ignores the considered view of many that the Foreign Office bureaucracies of both India and Pakistan probably have the most inflexible and traditionally closeted approach to the whole issue and hence are perhaps the biggest impediments to normalization.

Reading this, one couldn’t help thinking that when Musharraf was talking in his CNN-IBN interview about the “agencies and institutions” in India that dictate to the political leadership (hence implying that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needed to assert himself more) he might have also meant the country’s media. The channel itself which broadcast the interview asked its viewers to respond by calling in or sending e-mails to the following question: “Can we trust Musharraf?”

In the same piece, the TOI also dismissed the Hurriyat Conference as nothing more than a Pakistan-sponsored and backed organization. It wrote: “The Hurriyat should realize that their politics has to gain momentum and an agenda outside the ambit of Islamabad. Externally sponsored campaigns can hardly transform a society or achieve democratic rights.” This is a stand that even the Indian government does not take vis-a-vis the Hurriyat, as shown by the fact that senior Indian leaders have met APHC leaders and that the head of another party, Sajjad Lone, recently met Mr Manmohan Singh.

Incidentally, on the same day, the TOI also had a “guest editor” for its editorial page. This was made known through an announcement on its front page, with the head of a local business group being given that privilege for the day. This just goes to show the extent of commercialization of the print media, even of the once-venerable Times of India. Journalists one spoke to said that in some newspapers, the hold of the management had become much stronger and commercial considerations were often allowed to override editorial judgment, discretion and control. This is something that has been commented on in the past as well (especially by Ayaz Amir on the editorial page in his “Cautionary tale”) but it needs to be pointed out that many journalists are not too happy with this turn of things but seem powerless to do anything about it, particularly when they see their senior editors ceding too much ground to marketing and commercial interests.

As for the Indian Express, it did not editorialize on the interview and neither did the Hindustan Times. The Calcutta-based Statesman carried a column on its editorial page on Jan. 11 by Rajinder Puri, described as a “veteran journalist”. While he did not rubbish Pakistan’s proposals on Kashmir, he did say that India had to take the lead to prevent Pakistan from becoming a failed state or else the “jihadis” would destroy it.

In fact, much of his column comprised unproven allegations and accusations against Pakistan, its army, China and Chinese intelligence which, he said, backed the Maoists of Nepal, the “jihadis” in Bangladesh (which he said was becoming a “haven for Al Qaeda) and the Taliban.

Puri wrote that India should seriously consider the proposals but only because not doing so may well doom the country. He wrote that Pakistan is “an unnatural state, created artificially following Partition conceived by a departing colonial power which was pursuing its post-war global interests. The Indo-Pakistan boundary delineated by the Radcliffe Award was totally irrational and defied all norms of nationhood. The majority of people inhabiting what is now Pakistan were opposed to Partition.” Mr Puri also blamed Congress for not accepting what he said was the Khan of Kalat’s desire to join India after Pakistan gained its independence. In his view Pakistan was in “deep turmoil”, and that the Janjuas of Jhelum have a stranglehold over the Pakistani military.

Even the slew of retired ambassadors and generals who write on India-Pakistan relations and on Kashmir in the English print media in Pakistan do not write such hogwash. It seems that the media in India is not really interested in promoting peace with Pakistan since no efforts are being made — at least not in the mainstream press — to even consider or examine the merits or demerits of the proposals made by the Pakistani president.

In fact, the same week, Frontline magazine, published by the same people who take out the very balanced and progressive The Hindu, had a cover story on jihad in India. That story of course had the mandatory connection to Pakistan but also included a report on how elements in Bangladesh were playing a role in what the writer said was the spread of jihadi activities in India.

Reading the piece, written by senior Frontline writer Praveen Swami, which quoted officials in the Indian intelligence apparatus and government, one got the distinct impression that New Delhi was not too happy of late with Pakistan.

Also, in the first week of January, alleged terrorists had shot at and disrupted a meeting of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and police had apparently arrested who they said were Lashkar-i-Taiba militants in Mumbai and Hyderabad. All this is also probably the reason for the rather lukewarm response to Pakistan’s offer to the Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan to watch a one-day match between the cricket teams of both countries. It seems that some kind of direct intervention may have to be made by either leader to nudge the peace process forward.

The ironic thing is that while all this goes on, the Indian cricket team’s presence in is given extensive coverage in the Indian print and electronic media and Pakistani musicians like Strings (which have sung the title track to a recently released Bollywood film), Jal and singer Atif Aslam have a massive following among many young Indians. It’s difficult to reconcile this with the mistrust at the official level and, to a great extent, in the Indian media but then some things never change.