Urdu Science Board in peril

March 17, 2019

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LAHORE: The Task Force on Austerity and Restructuring of the Government under Dr Ishrat Hussain in a recent meeting decided to merge the Urdu Science Board, Lahore and the Urdu Dictionary Board, Karachi into the National Language Promotion Department, Islamabad.

The Urdu Science Board was established in 1962 and it was then called the Central Urdu Board. “The Commission on National Education 1959 (later known as Sharif Commission after its chairman S.M. Sharif) had proposed educational reforms, including a recommendation for making Urdu a medium of instruction. To implement the decision, science books were needed in Urdu and the Central Urdu Board was set up through a resolution of the Cabinet.

“With its head office in Lahore, three branches were set up in Hyderabad, Quetta and Peshawar. Its name was changed to the Urdu Science Board in 1982,” says Nasir Abbas Nayyar, director general of the board, while giving a background to the institute he heads. The objective of the board was to print science and social sciences books, including translations.

Since the 18th amendment, the Urdu Science Board has been working under the National History and Literary Heritage Division of the federal government. Earlier, it was working under the Ministry of Education. In the past, it had been headed by Ashfaq Ahmed, Kishwar Naheed, Amjad Islam Amjad, Zafar Iqbal among others.

“Its mandate included printing books on science, social sciences and humanities besides languages. Its work also included preparing dictionaries to develop and enrich the Urdu language with inclusion of vocabulary from regional languages too. It got dictionaries including Urdu compiled and printed for Punjabi, Pashto, Balochi and English. After becoming the Urdu Science Board, it was made more specific to science books.”

The board has printed mainly science books but in its about 700 books printed so far, many are on other topics such as languages, children literature, history and technical education. It has published 20 dictionaries and encyclopedias. Currently, it’s working on 25 book projects. Many of its books printed decades ago are out of print due to paucity of funds.

Nasir Abbas Nayyar is the DG of the Urdu Science Board since Dec 21, 2016. During his two-year stint, the board has published 63 books, 70pc of which are new books while the rest are out of print.

“I also opened the Urdu Science Kitab Ghar which is a kind of display centre for publications. Earlier, the books were kept in store but they were not on display. We also started mobile bookshop which takes book to places within the city, especially educational institutions, as well as out of the city. Both of the initiatives increased the sale of books.”

Mr Nayyar says another initiative taken during his tenure is the Urdu Science Award which is given annually on the best manuscripts on science. So far the board has given two awards which also carry cash prizes. Yet another initiative is the monthly lecture on science.

The total strength of employees of the board across Pakistan is 65 while only 50 employees are currently employed. Except the DG, all the employees of the board are regular government employees, including three assistant directors hired through the public service commission to head regional offices.

The recent decision of the task force is stated to be aimed at saving funds. They give two arguments in favour of the merger, first, saving funds and second, all three institutes are of Urdu under the federal government and they can work as one institution.

“Both these arguments are very weak. All three institutions have totally different roles. Dictionary board is working only on dictionary which is a mammoth task in itself. It has produced a 22 volume dictionary, made it available online and launched its app. It needs constant changes. The National Language Promotion Department, under Iftikhar Arif, works only on Urdu used for government offices.

“The second argument is of saving funds. All the employees of the Urdu Science Board except the DG are civil servants. If the merger happens, they would still be employed and paid. The building of the head office is also government property. This argument of saving funds is not valid in this way.”

Mr Nayyar says the science board does not take anything from the government to print books. All its books are published through its own funds generated through sale of books.

He says that after the merger, if the national language department is given autonomy, the service structure of the employees of the board would also change which would be financial loss for the employees, especially the lower cadre employees.

The term of Mr Nayyar at the science board is going to end in December and he would go back to the Punjab University’s Urdu department where he is a tenure track professor.

There was a criticism from some quarters that heads of science board and dictionary board were trying to save their skin by opposing the merger as well as their hefty salaries. Responding to this allegation, Mr Nayyar says: “My tenure would end in December and I have a job in the Punjab University. I am working here on deputation. When I came here, my accumulative pay in the university was more than my salary here. When I would be back in December, I would still get more salary.”

Both the Urdu Science Board and the Urdu Dictionary Board have done considerable work of great significance. They should be encouraged for more such work and projects and their independent status should be kept intact. Regarding austerity, it does not look that much saving would be done through the merger as the government would keep paying salaries to the employees and bearing expenses incurred on the offices.

The task force ignored the arguments of Iftikhar Arif and Nasir Abbas Nayyar against its decision and it should focus on real austerity. It needs institutions like science and dictionary boards if it wants to keep Urdu relevant.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2019